Taking Stock: Some Notes on the Work of Johanes Zechner


Johanes Zechner spent March of 1993 travelling around Ireland. His thoughts and experiences are condensed in the modest and disposable means of a suitcase work, titled “In Gottes Küche, Jerusalem“. Seven canvases mounted on boards for the hobby market in painting are carefully packed into a work of art in a box. The case itself, green with gold Arabic letters, formerly contained Arabic tapes of the Koran. It was found in Brick Lane, within earshot, almost, of the mosque on Mile End Road, and a well known muslim area.

In itself the story of Zechner’s acquisition tells little beyond a display of acquisitive willpower. A story about an Islamic friend in Vienna persuaded the shopkeeper to separate the case from its contents. The case and its sale in London marks, however, a point of mediation between still separate worlds that cleave open unexpectedly when religious intolerance  (Rushdie’s transgression) is translated into political conflict. Zechner’s refilled case forever bears a sediment of its initial content, a latent political undertow that informs the content of the finished work. By use of association, Zechner enriches the experience on his works’ content in their absorption of multiple histories.

In transit through neighbouring communities if the East End, each with distinctive racial and historical flavour and full of indivisible boundaries, Zechner found cheap plastic chest pouches. Made with cloth edging binding layers of shiny, coloured and transparent plastic, they initially recall the practicalities of travel. Inside the pouch he found rectangles of coarse cardboard, put there to stiffen it, pinned all the parts on the wall and began work. By chance the sum of these parts became a triptych, a form deeply engrained in the western visual tradition, yet rarely so modestly conceived. From their mass-producted tackiness, however, a more problematic content is posited. They symbolise the enormous emigration taking place as political systems throughout the world collapse and regroup.

Even  more complex are the multiple recollections and visual relationships offered by the seventeen “Gepäck – The Big Issue“ canvases on their rows of plinths at our feet. “Gepäck – The Big Issue“, another, large, suitcase work, marks an attempt to bring the spectator into immediate contact with the artwork. No longer viewed at a distance of the vertical plane (the instinct on seeing frescoes is to step back, not forward), Zechner’s pictures here become objects through which we physically progress, like hedgerowed formal gardens. Unpacked from their case, these laid out canvases are the still points, the distillation of art in travel. Registration, measurement and configuration – in the hazy ship’s outline, sequences of red dashes, recorded throws of the dice – from an undercurrent connecting textures, coloures and images. A billowing vortex (a Turner seascape?) contends with the blinding chaos of snow over Vienna and the sun from a weather chart. Stories of separate activities, from the chill of the street to introspection in the museum, are harmoniously unified by the predominant reds and browns. The overall accumulation of canvases can be read as banal and illustrative, but by probing introspection, far more dense interconnections can be found. The voice in “Ich nahm ein Bad“ is the verbal equivalent of visual ambiguity found elsewhere. How everyday hygiene might also serve as metaphor for the cathartic consequences of other forms of cleansing, both current (Bosnia) and historical (the Holocaust).

Such ambiguities underlie the question marks planted in orderly rows in the closed colour field of one canvas in “Gepäck – The Big Issue“. Assumed questioning is relegated to a pattern of repetition. No answers are admitted, stunting the desire for knowledge that is stimulated by inquisitive curosity. Rather, the marks breed further questions; about their purpose and readability as signs in the absence of further text. A metaphor, perhaps, of the information gaps that motivate questions; of how grammatical signs cannot present meaning without context. Rather than spelling out “WHY“, however, the wider recognisability of the “?“ punctuation mark, unmediated by translation, underlines the fruitless openendedness of the enquiry. It becomes equally incomprehensible in the many languages that share the sign.

The ant-eater image in “Gepäck – The Big Issue“ also manifests itself as an universal symbol – it reads like a traffic sign. On the other hand, this apparent clarity of description makes it paradoxically more mysterious. It could be interpreted as a coded metaphor of the impuls to destroy, and finds correspondances elsewhere in the work. The ant-eater is the agent through which one of the most complex cultures in the natural world – the ant hill – is levelled.

The true weight of a story, here as elsewhere in Zechner’s work, lies beyond the mere facts or motifs. Its meaning is usually arrived at eliptically and often attains mysterious independence of the factual origins that brought it into being. Zechner’s integration of photographs in his work demonstrates this. Marginalised by massproduction and instant consumption in newspapers to, at worst, a decorative function, photographs are used by Zechner to reimplicate the spectator into the moral dimension of everyday experience. Images of an impromptu street execution in Bosnia, or Goering at the Nuremburg trails reverberate beyond a simple record of events. They raise the question of individual or social intervention, the need to act, not observe. The social disintegration of communities and cultures, mass migration caused by war and the concommitant rise in crime to exploit the desperate (acquiring visas, being smuggled across frontiers have their price) are bauntingly recalled as evidence of this human failure. Seen together with the ant-eater, another motif of destruction in “Gepäck – The Big Issue“, Zechner’s multiple layering of narrative, a carefully developed personal language, becomes clearer. With appended photographs, the historical record of an actual event is fixed, suspended between the present (of the photograph) and the past (of the fixed event). Finding meaning for the present requires a creative and critical reconstruction of history, a need to link up with the site and moment of the photograph and explain its historical consequences and significance.



Wiederabdruck: Ausszug aus Sean Rainbird, „Taking Stock: Some Notes on the Work of Johanes Zechner“, in WIEN B - Johanes Zechner, Städtische Kunstsammlung Chemnitz,  Juli/August 1993