Peter Cross – About Jörg Ahrnt

Eröffnungsrede zur Ausstellung
„Wie strömendes Wasser“
Museum Haus Goch, 2010


Peter Cross

About Jörg Ahrnt

I would like to begin with a journey. This was a journey to Iran that I made in July of this year. It took me to another world, via Dubai to Persia. But when I arrived in Tehran for the first time, I felt strangely at home. Tehran reminded me not of some exotic Arabian fantasy land, seen in a magazine or tourist brochure, but of downtown Sao Paulo, in Brazil where I was born and lived for many years. This is the area, between familiarity and strangeness, that I would like to talk about in relation to the work of Jörg Ahrnt.
Sao Paulo and Tehran are roughly the same size, 18 million people and growing without control, with no central plan. They act like a kind of magnet, forcing millions of people to leave their homes and migrate to the big city in search of work, a life, something like a future. Through a combination of internal migration, and the economics of globalisation, these cities are becoming the most important place in the countries they are part of. They are like many others across the world: Istanbul, Shanghai, Mexico City or Johannesburg. The city makes a new kind of community for the people who migrate there. They move there because they must, in search of work and opportunity. There is a crazy sense of energy.
Nobody is at home in this kind of city. Everyone is a stranger. The city is constantly transforming itself. What was once a prosperous quarter of the city just a few years ago, with trees and parks, nice cafes, is now a terrible jungle of dirty concrete. The district has disappeared, or it has been completely rebuilt, or it has a new name. Even people who have lived there all their lives are like unwelcome immigrants. They too must fight to survive in the city.
But it has a strange seductive power. There is a strange democracy in the energy. You may be struggling, but so are 18 million other people. It is endlessly ugly, chaotic, poisonous, a vast inhuman machine. Somewhere, there is a history. But it seems to be forgotten, so quickly and totally, that the present also can seem like a mirage. Please don’t misunderstand me. I felt immediately at home in Tehran. I understand this kind of energy, and I understand that it represents a kind of future.
Iran has also has a significant past. We do not have time to begin to think about Iranian culture and history. What may be important for us now, is to think of this history as presenting a completely different world view to the culture of Western Europe: the way of life, the beliefs and attitudes, and most important for us, the art, music and literature. For Jörg Ahrnt, this past is also important, as we shall see. Not as a separate world, but as a way to understand and also find a place in a different culture.

I begin my talk with Iran, because it is the second home of Jörg Ahrnt and the home of his family. He has been travelling to Iran for about ten years with his family. Every year he discovers more about his second country. And I think that if you cannot understand Jörg Ahrnt’s relationship to Iran you cannot understand anything about his work.
So, thinking about this relationship of this German artist to this modern culture of Iran, let us begin by looking at this series of ink drawings, executed with a brush and ink on paper.
We see a series of beautifully made drawings on paper, in brush and ink. The drawings represent a wave pattern, in colours that also represent water, cool turquoise and blue. Some have warmer earth colours. What is represented is water: fast-moving, flowing water.
The drawing is on an extended rectangle, and suggests a wider space, an abstraction of a movement of water, or a river. Not a specific river, but a generic river, an abstraction of a river. The drawing has an ‘all over’ quality: what we see is a fraction of an infinite space or process. The drawings seem to represent water in a way that refers to an oriental way of seeing. So this drawing is also about the act of representing the water.
Because this drawing is made of repeated, almost identical movements, we focus on the fact that these movements have been made by hand. What we see is evidence of a human performance, an action, a process. We imagine the artist clearing his mind, and focusing on the skilled and concentrated task of making these movements. It is a skill that needs experience, a light touch, concentration: this drawing is the visual equivalent of playing a musical instrument. It reminds us of a violinist playing a fugue by Bach, for instance. Each drawing is like the visual evidence of an individual performance. In later drawings, the artist introduces another element: the foam on the wave, or is it light on the surface of the water, represented by a break in the line. This break is a negation rather than an assertion. This detail, an element made out of a negation, or an empty space, brings another dimension to the flowing line. It brings our eye back to the surface of the image, to the paper beneath the ink.
There are variations, showing us that the artist has the confidence to make slight variations on his theme. Perhaps it might be more accurate to say, variations on a meta-theme. So each drawing is like an illustration of a larger idea. What is this larger idea, what is the concept behind the abstraction? What is the artist ‘performing’?

Jörg Ahrnt has been influenced by a specific drawing which has been the basis for this project, a drawing that the artist found in the Pergamon museum in Berlin, when he has working on another exhibition. It is a drawing made in the 14th century, possible from Iran, certainly from Central Asia. It was brought to Berlin in 18th century 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.
Jörg Ahrnt was immediately fascinated by this drawing. He has reproduced it at the beginning of the drawing section in his latest publication. We see here an equivalent of a form that has tremendous importance for the artist: a Chinese form, describing a Persian river. Water described in one cultural language is flowing through a landscape made from a different one. The total image, so to speak, is a hybrid, a mix, evidence of inter-cultural communication.
For Ahrnt, the drawing represents a form of cultural difference. It shows the journeys that are made in culture, from one visual language to another. Here, the journey was made on the old Silk Road between China and Europe, one of the most ancient communication routes between East and West. The Silk Road passes right through Persia. The drawing shows the blending of Persian and Chinese influences, styles and ways of seeing, into one image.
The drawing brings us am image of hybridity and cultural migration. It brings us something very modern from a very old culture. It is therefore a drawing that has strong cultural relevance also today. It is therefore no coincidence, although it was a coincidence, that the curators of Documenta 12, Roger Buergel and Ruth Noack, chose exactly the same image as a reference for the construction of the whole documenta project in 2007. You will find the image that Jörg Ahrnt found in the library at the Pergamon museum also in the opening pages of the catalogue for documenta 12. The phrase the curators use is the same one that came to Jörg Ahrnt: the migration of form.
The migration of form. But we ask again, why this image? There is another dimension of difference that is also important for this artist, working between Europe and Asia in the 21st Century. This is the difference between the ideal and the actual, and the difference between Western and Asian visual culture.

I live in the West and I think of Ahrnt’s work as being abstract, a process-based conceptualism. But then you could say that he is absolutely not conceptual. His close links with his materials, his brushes and paper, is of course not conceptual. In fact, his love for his materials is contrary to the idea that the concept is more important than the medium. But Jörg Ahrnt has connected with Persian culture in this connection with his materials. In this more traditional approach, the artist can only achieve abstraction if he has complete knowledge of his tools. He can only be considered to be an artist if his work loses any sense of the personal, and almost becomes abstract. These drawings are unique to the artist, but in a way, they are not. I think that this is the balance that interests the artist.
The image that the artist represents is also abstracted in this process. The river becomes an ideal of a river. This ideal river does not exist, apart from as an idea of flux, change, transformation. This was the way the artist thought about the image in the 14th century and it is the way the artist thinks about it in the 21st century. But the concept of flux has changed in 600 years. What once had a formal, or spiritual meaning, is today much more political.
Jörg Ahrnt goes one stage further in his dialogue with modern Iran, with the culture that I described at the beginning of my talk. He has linked the ideal river flowing through the history of Iran, with a real river he has photographed in present time.

In this exhibition, the artist projects his photographs on a beamer for the first time. When he is in Iran, Jörg Ahrnt takes photographs all the time. He uses photography like most people do, as a kind of visual diary of his travels. But he is also interested in finding significant images which can stand next to his other works of art. This is a new, but I think increasingly important, area of work for the artist. The private, almost subjective element in photography allows him some freedom in a culture like modern Iran, which has heavy rules of visual censorship. Digital images can travel anywhere. Private photography allows him to capture images that would be officially forbidden, like some of his images of the anti-government riots in Tehran in 2009. And it allows him to show the ecological catastrophe that is unfolding in the country.
Amongst the photographs we see a series that relate closely to the drawings. They show dried up river beds, rivers that have been reduced to small trickles of water. There is nothing beautiful about them. The link between the abstracted liquid forms in the drawings and the contemporary disaster of the photographs is the distance you must travel in understanding the contemporary in Iran, seen by an artist from another culture. It is a journey across time, across traditions, across languages. The artist is telling us that this is a complex journey and one that challenge his values. We will come back to this later.

For a moment let us look at the way the artist presents his drawings. They are not framed in a traditional European way, behind glass, but they are mounted on a structure like an advertising hoarding. This method presents the drawing, and places it in the space, but also stresses its sign-like quality. This presentation gives us the sense we are looking at something that is part of a 3 dimensional space rather than a flat image behind glass on a wall. This allows us to focus more on the optical effects of the drawing, the way it hovers and shimmers. This communicates to us more like a signal than an image. We have a direct link with it and it joins us in our own space. It has a more architectural presence. Perhaps it is a reference to the fact that in Persia, visual art has a close relationship to architecture. Also, the fact that it is a 2 dimensional image is somehow made clearer, by the empty space behind the image.
So we also search for the artist, but he remains elusive. The work he shows us is not subjective, even though it shows discipline and skill. Instead, we see an engagement art history, an idea of abstraction and representation, a historical link to the artist’s own position as a traveler between cultures. Perhaps we can learn more about the artist if we focus on his practice.

In 2002, at the beginning of his relationship with Iran, Jörg Ahrnt began a series of drawings based on the prayer beads that are common to all Islamic countries and have links to our own culture.
The beads are a tool for meditation, and the drawings of Jörg Ahrnt ‘represent’ this function. The drawings show repetition, the materialization of thought. This abstracted form of intellectual energy is ‘represented’ by the artist’s own gesture. When he draws the beads, he draws closely controlled balls of energy on the paper. In Jörg Ahrnt’s drawings, the beads hover in an abstracted space, a space very similar to the energy field we find in these drawings of water.
What we see with our contemporary, secular eyes is just a bundle of lines, a concentration of energy in the present moment. The drawings seem to be weightless, yet full of tension and life. They are a field of abstract action, with no beginning or end. In fact they are a meditation. These drawings, like the drawings of water, are also like playing an instrument. They seem 3 dimensional. The artist has made a structural analogy between activity of drawing and using the prayer beads. I think that he has brought them into contemporary time.
The older drawings are also like a conduit, a link between 2 cultural states – the old, the museum, and the contemporary.
So the artist has made, on one hand, images that float, and on the other hand, images that flow. Floating, hovering, shimmering, flowing, are words which we associate with the drawings of Jörg Ahrnt. In both of the examples we have looked at, he has represented energy, he has given us a visual equivalent of change and flux on the most abstract level.

I think it is important for us now to come back to the fact that in these drawings, Jörg Ahrnt is working with the tools and languages of cultures that are very different to his own. The artist is a product of a Protestant consumer culture, a materialist culture that believes in transcendence. The ideas of the culture he studies are very different. But Jörg Ahrnt seems to be happiest when he is studying this difference like an academic or an expert. In fact he has become an expert, in Persian prayer beads, in Persian carpets, in taking photographs. I think this long term commitment to a process, to a new body of knowledge, is just one way that the artist is confronting difference in his work.
He is experiencing it from the perspective of the immigrant, someone who cannot speak the language, who does not know the traditions, who finds them totally strange. Perhaps one of the reasons he gets so close to the essence of these forms is because of their difference. He has been forced to abandon his Western preconceptions when approaching these alien forms, and in this moment of alienation, he has come close to what is essential about them. I would suggest that this is the energy that lies behind the meditation on the prayer beads, and the water in its act of flowing.
Perhaps we can find further evidence of this in the series of water colour sketches the artist has generously installed beside this other work. Here we can see the process in all its stages: the Western representation of water in a realist tradition, gradually transforming into something like an abstract tile pattern, or a Chinese motif. These sketches show us the journey he has started.

So I would like to end by saying that this journey is a beginning. I hope I have answered my own question: what can we see in this work that clarifies the artist’s relationship to Iran? I think that the destination is not so important for the artist. He is interested in the journey.
Jörg Ahrnt has distilled something important from his work across cultures. It is an idea that works visually in both cultures. He is showing us, in a visual way, what the French philosopher Deleuze would describe as immanence. This is an idea that in itself, has nothing to do with the traditions he is working on. Immanence, like the energy in these drawings, has no outside, nothing other than itself. It is a permanent state of becoming, part of the flux of the world. It suggests a dynamic world in constant state of transformation. Jörg Ahrnt is also in a state of transformation, working between cultures, across time and across different languages.
In contemporary art, it is fashionable to be either global, or local. You can celebrate your own culture, or you can make work like an Adidas T shirt, which is just as valid in Nairobi, Manchester or Dubai. But Jörg Ahrnt is taking a lot of time describing somewhere between these two points. Looking at one of his works can feel as strange as getting into a taxi on that first trip to Teheran after a long trip from Europe. It’s strange, but exciting as well. And it is very important to talk about this difference.