Pris- 'So it has taken over completely. Now I understand.'
JR- 'Your place, here, this apartment you've picked - it's too kipple-ized to live in. We can roll the kipple-factor back; we can do like I said, raid the other apartments. But -'
Pris- 'But what?'
JR -'We can't win.'
Pris -'Why not?'
JR- 'No one can win against kipple, except temporarily and maybe in one spot, like in my apartment I've sort of created a stasis between the pressure of kipple and nonkipple, for the time being. But eventually I'll die or go away, and then the kipple will again take over. It's a universal principle operating throughout the universe; the entire universe is moving toward a final state of total, absolute kippleization.'
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, Philip K Dick 1968
Nina Kandinsky saw it at this period - 'At the time it hadn't yet reached the ceiling' she said, 'Schwitters became extraordinarily talkative when it came to the column. He always had an anecdote, a story or some personal experience at his fingertips to explain the tiniest item that he kept in the niches of the column. We didn't dare ask him any questions, for he behaved very enigmatically when it came to some of the items.'
This activity was taking place in building to be found in a quiet street in the inner suburbs of Hanover. 5 Waldenhausen Strasse. The ground floor of the building was rented out to the Botel family and other tenants occupied other parts of the house. It was a bourgeois building in a solidly bourgeois street, unremarkable in every way from its neighbours. On the second floor of the building Schwitters had his studio in a room next to his parents parlour, and it might have been here that he started constructing the column. Or it could have been on the first floor of the house, or even possibly in the cellar, accounts vary and accounts are all that now remain as the house was destroyed in an allied bombing raid at the end of World War Two.
In December the Dadaist Richard Heulsenbeck visited the studio: "The tower or tree or house had apertures, concavities and hollows in which Schwitters kept souvenirs photos birthdates and other respectable and less respectable data. The room was a mixture of hopeless disarray and meticulous accuracy. You could see incipient collages, wooden sculptures, pictures of stone and plaster. Books, whose pages rustled in time to our steps were lying about. Materials of all kinds, rags, limestone, cufflinks, logs of all sizes, newspaper clippings...we asked him for details but Schwitters shrugged: "it's all crap..."
Wherever its location, Schwitters built out relentlessly, compulsively from this starting point. He developed a way of hammering nails so he could work at night when the other tenants of the building were asleep, he would hit the nail a terrific blow, then wait ten minutes so that surprised sleepers could theoretically collapse back into unconsciousness before two more sharp but quieter blows were delivered to drive it home. What he called the 'First day Merz Column' became a spreading shifting architectural growth, that made rooms and shrines and caves and grottoes, which reflected the interior and exterior worlds, which constantly changed content, form and often function, and which spread through the floors of the building. This changing architectural organism was the Merzbau, and its progress was so relentless and compulsive that it spread out beyond the physical boundaries of the house that first contained. It became viral, breaking out again first in Norway and then the Lake district in the North West of England as the Merz shifted from noun to verb, from object into activity, from space into time.
This relentless activity and accretion is unnerving, unsettling, especially in the context of the visual arts, which, over recent history, has come to increasingly define itself as a branch of philosophy. What, after all, is the agenda of reduction, the search for essence, that lies at he heart of Bahausian methodology if not a Neo-Platonic quest for essence and absolutes, a quest to establish a link to dimensions beyond the material where perfection might be possible? This is the narrative that used to be taught in art schools and in pedagogic books tracing the modernist development of contemporary art, where a painting by Raphael was reproduced in black and white overlaid by lines and triangles and circles to reveal geometric relationships: a vitruvian skeleton. Next to would be printed an abstract painting by 'modern' artist who had made these relationships the matter of their work, with a concomitant rejection of the messy matter of the physical universe through their refusal to represent external appearance . This logic can be seen as part-informing the tendency towards the de-materialisation of the art object itself over the last century or so, which, whatever the rationale - a denial of commodification, an embrace of the ineffable - tends inevitably towards a version of some sort of purity.
In contrast to these luminous realms, Schwitters' constant accretion, addition, and fiddling seems pathological, grubby. A material Tourettes, where matter - 'all crap' as he said - is endlessly and exhaustingly played with, rearticulated, layered and buried, without any promise of a resolution or an end point. He himself saw it in terms of a Gesamkunstwerk where there was nothing that could not be, would not be, Merz'd. There is something in such approaches that might make Manicheans of us all. It seems to indicate an oppressively material world that endlessly threatens to close in on us, contain us and block out the light, like one of Gregor Schneiders encroaching interiors. This is the realm of the Demiurge - the God of the Material World who, as some Gnostic sects believed, has locked our divine spark in base matter as a rebellion against a higher, purer, god. The fact that such acts of accretion and linkage seem to stretch the moment of a 'now' into an endless present that occupies an possible future reinforces the feeling of struggle and contingency. In his novel 'Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep' Philip K Dick coined the word Kipple for all the stuff that he saw as threatening to cover the continents and seas of the earth then the planets of the solar system to the outer reaches of the universe - a combination of 'entropy and capitalism' - "Kipple is useless objects, like junk mail or match folders after you use the last match or gum wrappers or yesterday's homeopape. When nobody's around, kipple reproduces itself. For instance, if you to go bed leaving any kipple around your apartment, when you wake up there is twice as much of it. It always gets more and more." As he said 'Kipple drives out non-kipple', until inevitably we are to be suffocated by its grey inert mass. Schwitters' collection of bus tickets, stubs, cigarette packets, pencils, piss and underwear would seem to be of this matter.
But this is to be misled by appearance. Instead these accretions and additions can be seen as suggesting ways of refusing the logics of the material, of resisting the Demiurge. Accretion is not only mass, but, as we see in Schwitters it is also (for a moment) an endless activity. When he collapsed and died on muddy track on an English hillside it was after a day spent working in the cold on his Merz and he had in his pocket the commission for the one to follow in the USA. These activities echo and contradict the received understandings and structures of the universe: be these the equations of commodity and consumer, the operations of entropy, or the machinations of a Bad God. The artists here work as blasphemers and take on the mantle of makers and motivators of worlds. It is this function of endless activity as a reproach to the structures of the heavens that underpins the tale of the tower of Babel, where building without end is seen as a challenge to Divine authority that can only be resolved by disrupting the communications and logics of association. An interior awareness of the blasphemous, Promethean loading of excess might explain the aura of secrecy associated with these activities. They have an air of the concealed, the covert and the hidden, of acts that take place out of sight, underground. Schwitters said that only five people had any great knowledge of the process he considered to be his life work. The Pathological element becomes significant here, as the nervous tic, the electrical excess of the human, stands in opposition to the chilly resolution of perfect form and reduction, and refuses the legislation of propriety, received logic and reason. It talks endlessly. it talks dirty, it hides away from the censorious forces of order. They are statements and systems that are kept alive by human effort. Processes of association and combination re-articulate matter as the artist desires, transmuted into information, into syntaxes which unfold, recombine and reproduce to claim an autonomy of their own. In their ceaseless desire to make sense, to connect, to link, these accretions make nonsense of the dominant logics of meaning, and become secret reproaches, vital challenges to closure, to the absolute, to perfection.
© Richard Grayson 2010