Artspace Sydney 2000
Some work sets out to tell us something. Quite plainly and quite simply. This work is 'about', the artist says, drawing breath, and then proceed to enumerate a list of issues, concerns, sometimes reading for which the piece operates as a conduit for: amalgamating and rearticulating the component strands of concern. Right at the moment this manner of constructing work is in the ascendant (which in itself is not a bad thing) probably largely because its easier to teach it that way in art schools and makes for a clearer and more limpid tutorial; further up the food chain it is easier for those curators who are not confident with the more amorphous forms of art to deal with a work where they can articulate its concerns as a point list: It is about.....a) b) and c) they are able to say with certainty and confidence, not letting on their worry about the more foggy stuff. Another reason for this ascendancy is that other ways of approaching the matter of art work can be easily - and often accurately - caricatured as a scenario in which the artist feels that the practice consists of the articulation of concerns and emotions too deeply felt or mystical for them to even hope to articulate, but which they strive heroically and against overwhelming odds to bring to view, like Prometheus bringing fire down to us mortals from up high. Such attitudes have historically been responsible for an awfully large amount of man-made (usually masculine) tosh cluttering up the wall and floor space of an already crowded planet. However, when presented with yet another measured, deliniatable work referring to a particular Lacanian concept, art-historical event, or a work which could happily and effectively be described rather than made, one cannot but think that maybe it is time for the pendulum to start its inevitable swing the other way. After all - we may reason trying to put our finger on the source of our dissatisfaction, our feeling of lack, of thinness - is not the very idea of 'The Aesthetic' predicated in realising that the realm of conceptual thought solely is inadequate to understand or express the plenitude of human experience, and so to try and find ways of generating a philosophy of somatic, sensational life. 'The Aesthetic' Nietzsche writes in the modestly titled 'Nietszche contra Wagner' is 'applied physiology'.
Certainly the somatic provides a constant throughout Franz Ehmann's work. He works with materials that are excreted by bodies, materials which are absorbed by bodies, materials which enclose bodies. He works with casts of body parts, with his own body, with objects which echo parts of the body, and throughout, ideas of nurture, shelter, growth and death are both suggested by and part of his practice. We have the smell of beeswax, the rustle of aprons, in some of his works the limpidity of milk. His practice is one of accretion and allusion, where certain areas are suggested, triggered, in a way not a million miles distant from the effect of Prousts madeleine dunked in tea had upon his narrator . It is a poetic approach rather than an illustrational one or that of a straightforward linear narrative. The work here is called 'Almost There' and the hesitancy of the title: its unwillingness to claim boundary, the tentativeness that it manifests in colonising space, echoes the works' operation, and the way that the component parts play upon us: never claiming full meaning -they never insist that THIS means THAT. Rather they hint and indicate, resisting the total transubstantiation of their own materiality into the miracle of meaning. Nurturing is obviously central to this work: although not the soft boundlessness that Freud posited as the childs memory of the womb (where there is no gap at all between desire and the satisfaction of that desire), but rather the more complex, wounding, operations of desire of our later life, where satisfaction is contemporary with lack, each playing against the other in an uneasy dialectic. The menu pinned on the back wall of a work seems to offer some avenue of satisfaction, of nourishment, as do the aprons. Aprons are worn by cooks. Cooks prepare food and they feed us, they are at the heart of the hearth, the home the family. Here however, the aprons are not fully functional, they have sleeves that deny the arm access, there are strange props in their pockets that usually, probably, have no place in a modern ikea kitchen. The comforting meals written on the cloth on the back wall are in fact a list the dishes prepared as the last meal requested by death-row prisoners. The ultimate comfort foods perhaps, but futile, bodily comfort against the awful end, the void that at some time confronts us all and makes impossible our making sense of it all as, after a certain point, we will have no senses at all. A stark conjunction that suggests the inevitable triumph of Thanatos over Eros. It seems fitting to point out here that Ehmann's 'trade' (outside those of artist and gallerist) is that of chef, so these batteries and undertakings are intimate to him.
Home is in the work as well. We have it in the small ideogrammatic houses, like Hotels from the Monopoly set, that have been formed out of beeswax. These are resting precariously on other blocks of wax and against them they have framed paintings leaning. These paintings - originally generic ones of beautiful natural loci, gum trees and all - have mysteriously gained an occluding layer of wax themselves, inscribed with a plain blue line suggesting some clean, abstract horizon. Wax is energy: it converts to fuel, it converts to warmth. Wax has been home to a billion bees and their larvae before they were evicted, their honey comb structures erased and the wax rendered and melted into blocks, before being transmuted into our little shelter. A shelter based on a million evictions. There is something soft and warm and sensuous about beeswax - it has a smell that acts upon our nervous system in a particular way bringing to mind various thoughts of sunlight, meadows and warm furniture. A house, a home, in theory has some location, but here, particular locations have been erased (by wax) and have been replaced with the signification of a horizon: which is an event rather than a place, which marks the point at which we can no longer see the earth as it curves away from us, leaving us only with sky. Which part of the world forms the horizon is relative to where we stand.
There are homes too in Ehmann's use of eggshells, wrecked homes, as these eggs are now empty, more likely to be cracked open and voided by a cooks hand than broken by an emerging chick: a sort of abortion for nourishment. As with the beeswax we are between two states, between exile and nurture: eggs are also sustenance as well as shelter, either for the small chick suspended from its yellow sun or for us and other scavengers as we suck their protein down.
Ehmann's practice presents us with layers of binary flicker: a complex dialectic flicker, that is based in an intense materiality, where our response takes us one way, and then another in our constant reading. The materiality is if you wish the somatic: this is the matter of the body which we read and respond to with a layer of the nervous system that resides in, monitors, the body: this is the physiological event which provides the first part of Nietzsche's equation. The second part is provided by a system of allusion, of symbolism - a currently unfashionalble language rooted perhaps in the europeaan models of thought of which Nietche is part. The symbolic however is purposely vague in its operations: it is an engine for the generation of understanding (think of the Freudian construction of the symbolic) as much as a reading. With Ehmann's practice, we have an idea of 'what it is about' but at the same time we are only 'Almost There'. In this articulation, we are never 'There' entirely, where we can give up the tension of trying to make sense for the calm harbours of understanding. Not only is the practice a commentary 'on this world', it is equally 'of this world' with the lumpy muteness that this world possesses unless it is being read. It is through his willingness to engage with ideas of the symbolic, and to present us with conjunctions and oppositions, momentary syntaxes of arrangement and superimposition, that Ehmann suggests ways that the phenomenological world can be momentarily given form and some sort of 'sense', by our volition and our understanding: a sense that stands apart from the matrixes and approaches presumed by quotiidian contemporary practices.