Romantic Subversion: Acts of In-Between-ness
Xander Karskens

“I was 11 years old when the Wall came down. (...) In the east, the wall was grey. A red and white railing with a ‘No Trespassing’-sign stood in front of it. But the western side of the wall, on the contrary, was colourfully painted. That was the first difference I perceived. (...) I remember scenes of attempted escape before the Wall fell. (...) All these people crossed a border. Even if their attempted flight failed, at the moment of their flight they were really free. This moment is important for me, for my work.” Matthias Wermke

Over the past years, Matthias Wermke and Mischa Leinkauf have worked together on a romantic, partly subsurface oeuvre that claims, thematises, and celebrates the above-mentioned moment of freedom. Their practice is largely illegal: through temporary actions and interventions they claim our public space, and intently ignore the regulations that apply to our use of it. You could call the duos activities ‘post-graffiti’1, in the sense that it is rooted in, but simultaneously expands on the principles of graffiti by altering its methods and using different media, and thus moves far beyond its dogmas of style-focused formalism. Their actions are subversive antics in the unruly and playful Debordian tradition of the dérive, but here the experiential immediacy and spontaneity of night time drifting is counterbalanced by a conceptual framework of precise planning and execution. A salient aspect in Wermke Leinkauf’s films is the meticulously constructed filmic imagery, which in terms of light, framing, and editing fits in seamlessly with the poetic nature of their artistic project. Most (post)graffiti videos are characterised by nervous hand-held shooting, which translates the intensity of the creative moment into unfettered realism, whereas Wermke Leinkauf take their time to prepare their nightly actions and depict them as still as possible.

Perhaps the most discerning aspect of Wermke Leinkauf’s recent videos, including Zwischenzeit, is the idea of temporality: not only is ‘time’ a defining component of both video and performance as a medium, the artists’ actions can exist only in the shadows of Berlin’s daily reality, sometime between the last subway train late at night, and the rattling daybreaker in the morning. Symbolically charging their loci with poetic-activist energy, these performances forever live on at the scene where they have taken place (in the case of Zwischenzeit: the Berliner U-Bahn network, its tunnels and stations, at night), creating new mythologies for these impersonal but uncannily evocative urban areas. Zwischenzeit is about the time it takes to travel from one subway station to the next. Time that normally passes very fast when riding a subway train, is now slowed down to unveil what is never seen or experienced: the stuff that is in between, the rubble, the imperceptible nothingness. A subway station is what could be defined as a ‘non-space’, but it’s the tunnels that are the real non-space: undiscovered, never truly entered. This is a poetic kind of urban archaeology. A form of play with an emphatic hands-on, do-it-yourself lineage, firmly resisting the rapidly digitizing contemporary play-space, and emphasizing the acute necessity of physically lived experience.

The romantic nature of this work seems to link up effortlessly with the developments taking place in contemporary art where a new generation of young artists is busy exploring comparable themes: the limits of individual freedom, the collapse of the political into the poetical, and the re-enchantment of contemporary life. Art critic Jörg Heiser coined the term ‘Romantic Conceptualism’ some time ago, to describe contemporary artistic positions in which the methodical rationalism of Conceptual Art is combined with the intuitive, emotional approach of Romanticism. Wermke Leinkauf’s artistic project, however, seems a different one: although there is a structural method to their claiming of freedom, they seem less interested in embedding their position firmly within the Conceptualist heritage. Their approach is, however precisely planned and prepared (for Zwischenzeit they invented a light foldable handcar to cruise the U-Bahn tracks, and trained themselves physically), still much closer to the heart than to the head – the product of field practice, outside of the artist’s studio.

On a psychological level, the fascination with dark underground networks branching off endlessly that is displayed in Zwischenzeit evokes strong associations with the oeuvres of artists working across many different media, such as Gregor Schneider, who constantly reconfigures the layout of the rooms in his house, thus creating an uncanny stratification of the normal; and Daniel Roth, who on a more fictional level deals with the insertion (or even dissolution) of the human body in labyrinthine structures. Formally, the work of Hans Schabus is emphatically reflected in Zwischenzeit: in his video Western (2002), which is part of an ongoing series of works in which the artist is seen sailing a tiny sailboat in unexpected locations, Schabus explored the underground sewer system of his hometown Vienna.

The combination of a melancholy longing for freedom and the exposing of oneself to possible physical danger through a performative act also recalls the work of young Dutch artist Guido van der Werve. Although Van der Werve’s film works are typically situated in sublime landscapes, a world away from the dark frayed corners of our contemporary metropolis we witness in Wermke Leinkauf’s work, they share the same stubborn romanticism and playful fate-challenging attitude. Two films come to mind in particular: Nummer acht (2007) and Nummer negen (2008), both shot on freezing cold locations, and both showing the artist himself performing a useless, yet highly evocative routine. In Nummer acht, Van der Werve casually traverses a frozen Gulf of Finland on foot, being closely followed by a gigantic icebreaker – thus running the risk, or at least toying with the possibility, of being run over by the ship. Nummer negen shows us the artist standing still on the exact geographic North Pole, slowly turning clockwise with the sun for 24 hours, and thus metaphorically resisting the earth’s rotation.

It is exactly this refusing-to-turn-with-the-world attitude that permeates Zwischenzeit, too – but this work embodies more than just a variation on contemporary romanticism, or performance art. Although there is no explicit political agenda at play here, and sloganeering or the use of signs is avoided, the aspect of civil disobedience is implicitly still the most important message. Instead of attacking the institutions of power and control by using the strategies of most politically engaged art (which usually comes down to the explicit unveiling of the crooked mechanisms of hegemonic structures), these artists simply point towards playful alternatives for our existing Umwelt. Hereby they address the registers of unheard-of possibilities, evoking a poetic consciousness of our individuality – and our duty to dream beyond the limits of our daily life.

  1. A somewhat problematic classification, I think, as it seems to limit all kinds of ungoverned artistic production in the public domain to a realm that lies outside of what constitutes ‘high art’, which therefore prevents a discussion of it in the same, potentially fruitful, discursive terms.