Martina Weinhart – Water, Dust, Waves and World View – The Orient and the West in the Work of Jörg Ahrnt

From the Exhibition Catalogue:
„Wie strömendes Wasser/Like flowing water“
Kerber Verlag, 2010


Martina Weinhart

Wasser, Staub, Wellen und Weltbild — Der Orient und der Westen in der Arbeit von Jörg Ahrnt


A drawing. I look at it for a long time. The delicate curves of fine lines are applied, drawn in regular patterns on the paper. They give a consistency of forms, signs, lines and empty space on the page. On one hand, they are calm and harmonious; on the other, dynamic and urgent. The lines twist and turn over the paper, take possession of large areas and thus generate an ‘all-over’ configuration, which seem set to continue indefinitely. In precise parallels, the forms push their way beyond the image. At the same time, the whole surface shimmers and vibrates, irritates the eye in its perception. Thus the image oscillates between abstraction and figuration, and overall has something tangibly concrete, which also makes it readable as being figurative. In their blue and green colour transitions, the lines of the representation are reminiscent of waves and clear water. The spaces suggest small playful ornaments. The water seems to ripple. Perhaps the lines are reflections of light on a river, a lake. It is definitely not the sea; the picture has nothing grand, or even monumental, about it. Everything speaks for the river, even the paper has a decidedly oblong format, almost like a scroll or a roll of wallpaper. In fact, it is a river, which Jörg Ahrnt keeps continuously in the picture. Like an assignment, he draws page after page, and thus brings a series into being. Like a Zen master, he sets down the even lines of Indian ink on the paper with a steady hand. Concentration, ­contemplation and persistence determine his artistic process. Repetition is the dominant motif. If we follow the series from the beginning, you can also search for and try to read the artist in this drawing routine, which consists of a process-like interplay between monotony and difference. Variations especially define the early images in the series, which are also characterised by experimentation with the format. Here you can find small A4 size sheets in conventional, larger and finally space-filling landscape formats. Some contain straightforward warming-up finger exercises. He tests and systematically works out the grammar of ornament in cluster-like formations that stand singly on empty sheets of paper, and so the work documents the various movements of the hand and twists and turns of line. On the other hand, other pages offer chaotic patterns that have nothing in common with the dynamic tension and severity of subsequent drawings. In them, you can read references to water, but here, if anything, we tend to make associations with small-scale, swirling areas of space without any direction. The colour scale, which in the later drawings produces an elaborate range of mainly blues and greens, sometimes yellows and reddish tones, here shows more dedicated contrasts. In this way, Ahrnt’s work develops out of chaotic series of waves and directionless energy towards a balanced harmonic language of delicate colour transitions.

With this drawing practice, which could almost be called a ritual, Ahrnt comes close to another work of art, which also deals with a river – but one from a long forgotten culture. The starting point is an encounter with a small sheet of paper that the artist chanced upon in 2005, during research for his exhibition at the Museum of Islamic Art in Berlin. In his search for representations that combine figurative elements with ornament, he rummaged through the State Library, where he found a river landscape from the 14th century, probably from Central Asia, possibly from Iran. It is a work of great power: in a strict, graphic design, a river runs through an almost expressive-seeming landscape, painted in water colour. Nearly abstract, and almost certainly not developed from the logic of the main narrative of the drawing, its powerfully coloured wave-tops surge up and through it. But it is not only the aesthetic appearance of the work, but also its specific history, which distinguishes it. Towards the end of the 18th century, it was brought to Berlin by the Prussian Ambassador to Constantinople, Heinrich Friedrich von Diez, as part of a collection of drawings and Persian miniatures of Chinese, Ottoman and European origin that are now incorporated in a portfolio of various artifacts. De-contextualised, torn from their cultural settings and functions in this way, the works in these portfolios can only be read intrinsically. Their significance is taken wholly from retinal analysis. And so the alerted eye searches for influences, commonalities, local and national peculiarities. In this way, the image triggers a complex reflection on the migration of forms, graphic formulas and ornaments – and also, not least, asks very fundamental questions about cultural identity and cultural flux.

You ask Jörg Ahrnt if it is these aspects in particular that – mirrored in these drawings – preoccupy him. He describes his fascination above all with the different cultural influences in the drawings, which combine Persian and Chinese elements and influences in a very specific way. Ahrnt is deeply immersed in this subject and has investigated this historical work with almost scientific precision; he has contacted Orientalists, had lengthy discussions and correspondences and has read around the subject in depth. Thus he combines a conceptual idea of drawing with the skill and ability of the ‘freehand’ draughtsman. At the opposite extreme, one thinks of the low value given by 20th-century Conceptual Art to even the idea of mastery, which had to be transcended in the realisation of a work. Ahrnt works exactly along this line. The mantra, ritual and ceremonial – all traditions of Asian culture – connect with our contemporary practices of reflection by appropriation. Not only in this way does Jörg Ahrnt combine western with eastern, Oriental, cultural practices.

In his drawings Ahrnt picks up the Islamic traditions of miniature painting and calligraphy, both in form and colour, to bring them into dialogue with the West, and to make them part of a transferral that is actually in constant flux and capable of looking back over a long history. This is demonstrated very clearly in the small 14th-century river piece. Ahrnt has a gentle, persis- tent, iterative approach to foreign culture. In the steady ­repetition of ornament, he looks for the bridge between cultures and finds it ultimately where we also find it most clearly: in the small and the unspectacular, and especially in the daily activities and changes that one must always repeatedly work through. He is slow and steady and liable to almost imperceptible shifts.

How he absorbs the East, and above all the encounter between Iran and his art work, determines Jörg Ahrnt’s entire artistic practice. It is also shaped by the intersections of different cultures and cultural techniques and their different contexts. He, who for years has regularly spent time there, makes his work in close contact to Iranian art, with which, through his many trips, encounters and friendships with local artists and their exhibitions, especially in Tehran, he is well versed. A whole series of photographs that have been generated during these trips exist on a different level to the realities of this theme. This reality has nothing to do with a landscape untainted by humans. It shows the landscape of Iran beyond the idyll and nostalgic observation: the rivers have dried up, and to the astonishment of the artist, buses are parked there. Another river bed has been paved and turned into a parking lot. He juxtaposes these images with modern interiors, equipped with advanced technology. There is the hairdressing salon with a plasma screen in front of each seat; the swimming pool; the lavishly equipped aquarium. The photographs reflect the contrast that exists between the archaic nature of agricultural life and the massive intrusion of modernity. Ultimately, the traditional technique of drawing and modern reality as it is captured in the photographs, mirror each other; they get close, in this mutual overlay, to the contradictory nature of Iran, and not least of course, to the contradictions and intersections that exist between East and West.

Translated by Peter Cross
Berlin, November 2009