Opening remarks to the
Exhibition „Maker Unknown“
Weißfrauen Diakoniekirche, Frankfurt am Main, 2012
We begin with an accident. In the summer of 2009, Jörg Ahrnt found a carpet abandoned in the street. When he unrolled it in his studio, he knew at once he had found something extraordinary and beautiful. It was a kilim, in near perfect condition. Attached to it was a small linen label on which the dimensions, 3.5 × 1.35m, are written in pen and ink. His first question, ‘What shall I do with this?’, was the starting point for this project.
The end point, or the point the artist has arrived at, is here in front of us. The cleaned kilim is lying on a kind of platform which separates it from the floor, on a surface that is tilted so that its four corners are at different heights. The platform is low, but installed where it is, it makes the kilim invisible from the entrance, so that the visitor encounters it after first seeing the supporting structure.
The surface of the structure is made of a grid of rectangular plates, which rest on a support of timber scaffolding . The entire structure is made of MDF, stained black. The dimensions of these black plates are taken from the repeated patterns that make up the structure of the kilim itself, thereby extending the patterns underlying the grid into the exhibition space.
The neutral support structure picks up certain elements in the kilim, but still leaves it as a self-contained discrete object in its own right. The orientation of the installation in the space, and the design of the structure ensure that the presentation is not a classic museum objectification, or a neutral framing of the kilim. Jörg Ahrnt’s question seems to be asking for a function, a status or a value for the object he has presented us. Surely the kilim already has all these?
In fact the installation presents us with a set of problems or irritations which make us question the status of the different elements, how they fit together, or what they intend to express. Our conditioned response when presented with a kilim in a display format is to enjoy the designs, colours and other elements of its manufacture, with more or less expertise, as an artifact from another culture. The display format separates it from our own experience. This installation somehow interrupts this response, but not entirely. On the other hand, it seems to present a kind of interpretation or analysis. The grid is based on the kilim itself and by extending into the room, suggests a dynamic relationship with the space, and therefore the viewer.
What happens after the initial encounter is a typical story of artistic research. Artistic research – that now very familiar term, seen in museum programmes, gallery project spaces and academic prospectuses everywhere – is what happens when the artist, presented with a non-art object or phenomenon, works to incorporate it into his or her practice. It’s a parallel activity to the practice of actually making art, but complementary to it, and nowadays especially, the lines between research and production are increasingly blurred. But the boundary, nevertheless, is a real one. This in itself can offer unexpected opportunities and discoveries. While academic research is empirical and language-based, artistic research is free, open ended, and, to the extent that it is questioning and moving towards the unexpected and the unknown, can be a critical intervention in the field of knowledge production. It is also a kind of daydreaming, an opportunity to work outside the self-imposed limits of an artist‘s usual practice.
Those of us who know Jörg Ahrnt’s work are already aware that it does not fit easily into one specific cultural framework, but moves consciously and critically between different visual cultures and languages. In fact it is this very ambivalence that has been Ahrnt’s starting point for years. We also know that he has a studio based practice. This way of working, with an object as opposed to art materials, is new for him.
The kilim presents another problem, or set of problems. You could say Jörg Ahrnt’s initial research was typically ethnographic: to map out or frame the kilim with a set of more or less reliable or normative references. It was a process of categorization. After he contacted carpet traders and Orientalists he learned that the carpet was over 100 years old, and was made in what is now the Eastern part of Turkey, an area once called the ‘Ararat Plateau’, one of the oldest points of civilization. This large area was once part of the Armenian kingdom, the Armenian Church was particularly influential there. The Plateau is famous for the quality of its crafts and manufacturing work. For millennia, it was inhabited by many ethnic groups and was a crossroads of trade and cultural exchange, in its long history under Persian, Byzantine, Ottoman and Russian domination. Its multiplicity was shattered by the arrival, at the beginning of the 20th century, of the nation state and with it, the idea of ethnic consistency, racism, persecution, and ethnic cleansing. In recent history all trace of the culture and circumstances that created the kilim have disappeared. Now several ethnic groups claim it as their own land. Much of what existed has disappeared or been destroyed, as Jörg Ahrnt discovered on his own ‘Field Trip’.
Meanwhile the kilim was hard to categorise. Kilims, as we shall see, evade ethnographic categorization precisely because of their basic identity as objects. Some carpet experts identified East Anatolian, some West Armenian influences. The designs, colours, ornamentation and composition suggest both Christian and Islamic contributions. Another dealer claimed it as Kurdish. But only one interpretation admitted to the possibility that the kilim could be evidence of a new, coherent language conveying all the influences concurrently.
The kilim is linked stylistically with what has become known as the Ambassadors Carpet, one of the many potent symbols surrounding the two foreign ambassadors to King Henry 8th of England, painted in London by Holbein the Younger in 1533. Of course, carpets from the Near East have been a symbol of wealth and power in Europe since the early Middle Ages. There was nothing approaching the levels of skill and technology necessary to manufacture such objects in Europe at the time. Therefore there has been an association with luxury consumerism around these objects for the last 700 years.
However, the manufacture, role and function of the kilim was different from the carpet. In its original use, as part of the living equipment of a nomadic group, the kilim had a dual purpose that was simultaneously functional and symbolic, as an element in the construction of a temporary living structure. As an essential survival tool, kilims were made as part of the annual cycle of work, using available materials, in a society where specialism was unknown. It’s the difference between expertise and knowledge.
And the 400 years separating the Ambassadors Carpet of 1533 and the kilim in Jörg Ahrnt’s possession would also not necessarily have introduced any significant changes in design. There are two significant points here. The first is that the living tradition surrounding the making of kilims, the context they were used in, and its unchanging nature ensured that no one questioned the configuration of colours and symbolic patterns. If they were part of an old kilim that was worn out, they would simply be transposed to the new one. There was no connection between the age and the value of an object: what was important was its content. In a way, this idea is still part of the local culture. The second is that kilims themselves had little value as objects of exchange. They were actually objects of a different nature, woven for indigenous use, and not as an export commodity.
The problem here is a typically modern one: a chasm of change and social trauma separates us from this unchanging tradition, now broken and lost. A storm called progress, to quote Walter Benjamin. The nomadic way of life has almost disappeared. Since the conditions of their manufacture have been transformed, kilims have also become objects of value and exchange, and are now made for export and tourism. They have lost their dimension of animism. The fact that the kilim was found in a street in Germany just confirms this loss.
Jörg Ahrnt encountered another kind of research problem straightaway: the problem of absence in language. He experienced an absence growing around the kilim as his empirical data increased. A sense that the more he knew about it, the less easy it was to find a place for it. His question, what shall I do with it, became more problematic. He was reading Höderlin and Hegel, books on the holocaust; on other collectors: Morton Feldman, Sigmund Freud; others with an ‘addiction’ to the antique, like Stefan Zweig. He began to realize that the problem was one of language itself. He began to interrogate the language he was enacting. He was inspired by Maurice Blanchot’s simultaneous interrogation and enactment of language in describing the absence that lies at the heart of language, like a negative value. He discovered that absence – this contested space – is where artists should work, reconciling language and objects, recharging it with new potentialities.
As we have said, Jörg Ahrnt was obsessed with the absences and distances separating him from the makers of the kilim, or to put it another way, that are contained within the kilim itself. But he discovered something else: precisely by admitting this difference, by placing the kilim in the category of ‘Folk Art’ and his own practice in the category of ‘Contemporary art’, he was perpetuating the very myth of difference, of the exotic, the oriental, the ‘other’ to the Capitalist normative order that he wanted to question. In reality the kilim makers also had questions. They were not different from us.
We live in a culture where the objects that surround us are either increasingly worthless and debased, or fetishized and mythologised: somewhere between IKEA, Sotheby’s and the rubbish heap. Objects instantly lose their value as soon as we pay for them, or their value and meaning is sucked out of them before we discard them. The alienation built into consumer culture, already highlighted by Marx in the middle of the nineteenth century, places all objects into a normative order, in which our role as consumers plays an essential role in giving value. The ethnographic process plays a parallel role in the museum.
In placing this object into question, Jörg Ahrnt is also aware of the limits of interpretation within the ethnographic process itself, the gathering of empirical data that ultimately only conceals the body of the object behind a screen of language. His question, ‘What shall I do with it?’, is not a normative question, but a question of potential.
So finally, this presentation of the kilim is not explanatory, not ethnographic. We notice that all the documentation of Ahrnt’s 2 years of research, which for many artists would have been the entire content of the piece, is not presented. There is no manufacture of history.
Instead, the artist is interested in the potentiality of the object. Maker Unknown is a project, a dynamic process, and one in which I, and this act of speaking, reading or listening, am also performing a part. Now you, the audience, also have a potential role.
The aesthetic paradigm is not ethnographic, but transversal. It crosses all levels of life and transforms objectifying systems, working alongside the separation of subject and object in language, to create new possibilities. For Jörg Ahrnt, this kilim is a work of art, because there is no other way of describing it. But the question itself is not interesting. What is interesting and important is the process that gets close to the questions surrounding the kilim: absence, folk art, contemporary art, orientalism, ethnography, trauma, function. If this space for potential is opened up, then the project has been successful, and it is art.