Philipp Messner is concerned with the after-effects of computer-generated virtuality. How have the relationships between object, viewer and space changed as a consequence of experiences with virtual spaces? Or rather, how does this process of change impact upon perception? Such questions sound almost philosophical, and in fact Messner has indeed developed his own theory of perception, set out in his book Virtuelle Ästhetik (‘Virtual Aesthetic’) published by Kyrene in 2008. This conceptual approach accompanied by writings links him with his teacher, Michelangelo Pistoletto. In Messner’s work, too, intellectual processes find their expression in a highly diverse range of artistic means. Alongside objects asserting themselves in three-dimensional space, performative approaches regularly play a role in inducting the viewer into a “school of seeing”. Messner’s works open up experiential spaces. The work group The rising star and the star rising demonstrates in exemplary fashion the morphological change to which both public and private spaces are today subjected. A three-dimensional star of oxidized aluminium is chased, as it were, through virtual space. Reduced to a sculptural silhouette, the original characteristics of the star shape dissolve beyond recognition and thereby defy symbolic interpretation. In its flatness, the star stations itself at the opposite pole to real space: the viewer’s gaze leaps back and forth between spatial depth and pictorial shallowness. Messner plays upon this same incompatibility between the experience of real and virtual space in his performances, too, insofar as he assigns the viewer no fixed position, but sets up a permanently shifting relationship between expected perception and physical and psychic projection.

Sabine Elsa Müller
ISBN 978-3-942597-03-6

The correlations between Philipp Messner’s artistic quest and the methods of Neo-Conceptualism are clear and, at the same time, blurred. It is in these established but continuous oscillations that the extremely dynamic rules of his works and installations are anchored. The materials and production processes employed by the artist allude to Minimal Art and its “industrial” aesthetics; formal grammar is reduced to elementary forms. An element of constant de-structuring and disburdening of the picture is introduced into the visual immediateness of his works. This occurs, on the one hand, on the level of dismantling and threedimensional re-assembling - the change of position and reorganisation of the resulting elements is also intended here. On the other hand, the use of mirroring, reflection and overprinting (as in his work “Arsenale”, 2006), which lends a perceptual and creative virtuality to the flat, two-dimensional surface, becomes an element of “putting-into-perspective”, a linking element between the piece of work, the observer and the exhibition room. The recipient’s role in this regard is a fluid one, that of an active transmitter. Without assuming any particular position beforehand, the recipients become integrated into a constantly changing relationship which determines their perception and which they, in turn, coinfluence with their physical movements and intellectual projections.
The relations between Messner and the tradition of Conceptual Art are characterised by a patient and deliberate distillation of experiments which, in addition, are attributable to Kinetic Art and Arte Povera among others, and, at the same time, by an interest in applied art, design and architecture as expressions of a culture of planning which is, by means of the empirical space of the work, capable of questioning and radically changing the real and symbolic space of our experience and our beliefs.

Andrea Viliani


notes „on gravity“
the con-fusion of images/objects/matter with meaning seems to be in philipp messner’s interest: the bone from the dawn-of-men-scene of kubrick’s 2001: a space odyssey as a three dimensional artefact, that was produced via rapid manufacturing („pro/ thesis“); documentary videos of attempts to „re-enact“ the technique of don quixote’s squire, sancho panza, to make his donkey walk with the help of a carrot („the un-autonomous object“); metal skull-badges from the ss-totenkopfverbände (death's-head units) run over by trains („untitled (on gravity)“); the hole of it nicely packed and tied and then labelled „on gravity“: ?!§$ä?€%(??%$=?ß@!“§$/)?!8!?

at the beginning of this century, jacques rancière made a distinction between different categories of images in „the future of the image“: images that try to produce a resemblance to a given object; images that try to disturb this logic of resemblance and that generate non-resemblances and images that (as a counter-reaction to the subordination of the image under the word or the logic of language) merely present a pure materiality/sensory presence: the hyper-resemblance.

concerning the opposition between hyper-resemblance and resemblance, rancière references roland barthes’ reflexions on photography in „camera lucida“, where barthes constrasts the punctum as an immediate pathic effect with the studium, as meanings and information, that are encoded and transported via a photograph: „the studium makes the photograph a material to be decoded and explained. the punctum immediately strikes us with the affective power of the that was: that.“ particularly in the context of his theorisation of the distribution of the sensible, rancière broadens this opposition with the already mentioned non-resemblance; a micro-shift in the well-regulated play of the operations within a sensuality and a power of signification and affect associated with it - a change of the resemblance.

resemblance – non-resemblance – hyper-resemblance: it is also in between the space marked out by these categories, that messner is operating in his exhibition „on gravity“, although he seems to be less interested in resemblances.

to have a donkey follow a carrot, hanging from sort of a fishing-rod before his mouth, that (in principle) he never can reach, because the fishing rod is fixed on his own back: on the one hand, this is the technique, by which sancho panza, the squire of don quixote in the famous novel by miguel de cervantes tries to „motivate“ his donkey to move forward. on the other hand it is also the task, to which messner has assigned himself to in „the un-autonomous object“.

in a certain way, the videos in „the un-autonomous object“ document the efforts to generate a resemblance – though, not in the sense of rancière – between the attempts to re-enact the donkey-carrot-experiment-setting and the „original“ situation described in the novel. that this generation of resemblance is effected from a fictional description into a real situation only augments the already mentioned confusion. also, the only thing left over from these actions are documentary videos, that are themselves resemblances. messner arranges a threefold chain starting with the novel description by de cervantes, then passing through intense, relatively uncontrolled situations of action, presence and „excessive, manifold and senseless“ matter, and concluding in three videodocumentations of these actions.

questions concerning the relations between meaningful signs and their materiality, between appearance and reality, between fiction and reality or reality and representation/documentation, and maybe even the relation between original and copy are never tackled explicitly by messner, but rather sneak in along the way – yet, already the reference of the novel implies a reflexion of these question.

rather, messner’s interest seems to be to give it a try by himself and see if and how this „technique“ works. but then, it is not a question of control, not a question of running or realizing a script, a guideline, an instruction in the most perfect and controlled way. the settings of the attempts weren’t designed very carefully: a handfull of protagonists, a donkey, a carrot-apparatus, a vague description/instruction, a relatively open terrain, time. these attempts came about relatively uncontrolled and turned out to be relatively fuzzy and different from the description in the novel. accordingly, the many other and unexpected things that happened became sensible and opened up other spaces of perception, unexpected links and sensibilities.

non-control, openness, „auto-execution“: the description in the novel functions as a sort of a score, like a manual for improvisation, that generates singular and unrepeatable choreographies. furthermore, the differing video documentations enhance this impression of singular interpretations of a script.

in addition, in the best manner of a conceptual art, which is not interested in classical art objects or artistic geniuses, messner has indeed arranged the situation, but then leaves it to „realize itself.“ the title „the un-autonomous object“ could also be understood in this sense...

the ss-totenkopfverbände (ss-death's-head or skull units) and the closely connected holocaust fall into a domain, often thought of as un-representable, because its horror was so extreme, that it is far from possible to display it in an „acceptable“ manner. it is especially because the ss-totenkopfverbände, as the watchmen and administrators of the concentration-camps and the directly executing agents of the nazi-mass-industrial-annihilation of otherness, were extremely embroiled in this large catastrophe/mass-annihilation. therefore their striking badges – metal skulls worn on the hat, and later also on the collar, are extremely portentous objects, because they are explicit documents of this past.

now, messner let something much heavier run over these badges of death, thereby erasing or distorting the meaningful sign and bringing these objects nearer to untreated material, to sensually, but senseless presence – hello jacques, do you read!?!? but one could also say, that he manipulated them in his own interest, or, more precisely: he let them be manipulated, without supervising/controlling in detail - he just defined the starting point and then let it go.

one such interest can surely be found in messner’s work „the ambassador“ (2008), which was inspired by the painting „the ambassadors“ (1533) by hans hohlbein the younger. hohlbein inserted a distorted skull into the realistic double-portait, whose distortion dissolves the moment one looks at it from the lower left in an angle of 27°. messner produced a similar, but not identical skull made from laser-cut polished aluminium (you also have to look from the lower right at messner’s version to dissolve the distortion). maybe messner hoped that after being run-over, the ss-skulls would be distorted in a similar way as hohlbein’s skull...

another such interest can be found in messner’s proceeding to let the skulls be reshaped. by delegating the authorship (that is, in best manner of post-conceptual practice) of the reshaping, he equally distorts this authorship as he does with the final artistic object, thereby being able to escape classical notions of artistic genius and of the unique artwork that can only be made with masterly knowledge of artistry.

but the ambivalent addition „(on gravity)“ is also open for another reading: the ss-skulls are definitely the gravest objects in the whole exhibition, or more precisely: they are the gravest reference to the past, traces, in the derridean sense. a reference to this past would also explain why messner let the skulls be overrun by trains: to empty them (maybe even to destroy them). they are not representations, not an image of this past, that would claim a this-is-what-it-was-like. but they would allow for an anticipation. maybe these objects represent the most direct pointer to questions/relations between past, representation and truth in the whole exhibition.

„untitled (on gravity)“ illustrates in an condensed way messner’s ambivalent play with signs full of sense and sensible presence, rancièrean non- and hyper-resemblances.

the three-dimensional replicaton of the bone of the ape-leader in the dawn of men in stanley kubricks 2001: a space odyssey is, in principle, as heavily charged with meaning as the former ss-skull-badges – it is only that the former draws to the introductory scene of a classic film in which man – fictionally – emancipates himself from the state of being animal and is becoming human, whereas the latter references a very real modern mass-industrial-scenario-of-annihilation. on the one hand science-fiction, on the other unrepresentable horror.

nevertheless, by having let produced the bone through rapid manufacturing via cad based technology, messner immediately con-fuses the fiction of the science-fiction with the real of the up-to-date or the soon-to-come. accordingly, the three-dimensional bone appears to be real and fake, virtual, but real. fiction, non-reality, reality, future. this bone very much resembles the bone in the film. it also very much resembles a „real“ bone, but it is something completely non-resembling.

rapid manufacturing, as a technique of emancipation from the monopoly of mass-industrial-standardisation-producing industry – and thereby in analogy to the emancipation of the ape in favour of becoming a homo faber in kubrick’s 2001 – is at the same time a self-empowering and creative do-it-yourself process. maybe messner just wanted to see how the bone would look if it was a three-dimensional object. just as in „the un-autonomous object“, in „pro/ thesis,“ messner puts himself to the task of reproducing a given thing, or, more precisely, of letting it be reproduced, so that in the course of this realisation, other unexpected findings/awareness can produce themselves. just as in „the un-autonomous object“, he is constantly changing the medium, starting from the „original“ until arriving at the final object (film-still – maybe even description in the draft > computer-aided-design based model for construction > artificial object): rancièrean non-resemblance.

as a last element in these processes of transformation, one could name for all of the works the conversion to the status of a piece of art, which may appear as bizarre as the preceding transformations. it is quite weird that the moment these objects/images/situation, which are so non-autonomous, so much entagled in the world and linked to life (sounds a little like bruno latour, doesn’t it?), are presented in an art-space, they are again retransformed into grave, clean, rather cold and (apparently) very much separated from the world objects. one last
blink of an eye in rhe direction of the title? „on gravity“ as the gravity of the art-world ( and it’s forms and rules), from which nothing can escape!?

one last time quote rancière, this time from his writings on art and politics: the chance of the solitude and separatedness of art in the art-space (to be precise, he is talking about the museum), can enable a form of sensual experience, that is uncoupled from the normal conditions of sensual experience (outside the art-space) with it’s structuring matter and hierachies. this distance of the uncoupled can make it possible, to shock the sensual perception of the world and the things in it, thereby eventually allowing for other distributions of the sensible.

sebastian stein


Totenkopf ist weg!
Untitled (On Gravitation)

There is a Polish film entitled Egoists. Made in 2000 and directed by Mariusz Treliński, it is, first and foremost, a depiction of Polish society in the late 1990s, a society devoid of ‘principles’, bewitched by capitalism and devoured by universal consumption. The visual leitmotif of the film is an image of light and its aural leitmotif the sound of an approaching train. In his essay, Fear of Seduction. (Polish Cinema from 1989 to 2009. A Critical History, dated 2010) Jakub Majmurek most pertinently observes that, “Without a doubt [the central characters ] are the beneficiaries of the Polish transformation, the pure upper middle class elite, who, truth to tell, are not possessed of a fortune that would free them from the necessity of selling their work and its fruit on the market, but whose work is remunerated by a market more generous than is the case for the majority of social groups. The central characters are the Polish variant of ‘symbolic analysts’, a category described by Christopher Lasch in The Revolt of the Elites as living ‘in a world of abstract concepts and symbols, ranging from stock-market quotations to the visual images produced by Hollywood and Madison Avenue”, in “a simulated world (…) – ‘hyperreality’, as it has been called – as distinguished from the palpable, immediate, physical reality inhabited world (…)’.” One of the central characters in Treliński’s film, Smutny, a composer who has gone from being an avant-garde artist to a writer of music for adverts, endures the break-up of his relationship with Anna. In the scene where he bids farewell to the past, a scene oozing pathos and tackiness, yet, for all that, absurd, he lays the key to Anna’s flat on the railway tracks. The key ring it is attached to is shaped like a rose, the symbol of love. The act of erasure and cleansing will be carried out by the train and, as Smutny sees it, in crushing the object/symbol, it will free him from the painful past.

Every work signed with the name Philipp Messner could well be subscribed by a common denominator, ‘the practice of illusion’, which leads to the creation of the absurd situations of which he is so fond. I myself maintain that the absurd widens the field of perception, generating other meanings and, very often, as happens with Untitled (On Gravitation), then stirring up visual-cultural images, images with which we have daily contact and to which we are accustomed, but which, first and foremost, elicit fear in us; they put us on our guard. This is not the first time that Messner has made use of the Totenkopf, the ‘death’s head’, basing his work on a distorted ‘skull’ image.

He reached for this motif in one of his earlier works, The Ambassador (2008), which makes direct reference to Hans Holbein’s The Ambassadors (1533). We can see a distorted skull on the Renaissance canvas, a skull which has somehow insinuated itself into this portrait of the two ambassadors. When viewed from exactly the right angle, it reveals its true face. In his Ambassador, Messner focussed primarily on stretching the image of the skull and on an illusion-based game with the viewer. The image of the skull appears when Messner’s object is ‘precisely discerned’ by the imagination of the viewers who, at the moment when they decipher the symbol, catch sight of what it is that they have sought to see… memento mori, ‘remember you must die’.

All the way...

Messner’s film is more or less a minute-long observation of a railway track, upon which he has placed an object previously bought at Warsaw’s Koło flea market; it is a Totenkopf of the kind that were most frequently found on Waffen SS caps and are most particularly associated with the fanatical 3rd SS Division Totenkopf. The death’s head, with its distinctive crossed bones behind its ‘head’, captured in right profile, teeth bared, is only one of the many skull symbols made use of in culture; in our contemporary times, this is first and foremost the case with popular culture. As a result of the crushing impact of the train’s wheels, this symbol of Nazism and the III Reich, and of all that comes in its wake, the Holocaust, World War II, anti-Semitism, the crimes perpetrated and the ‘embodiment of evil’, this laden symbol vanishes from the field of vision, becoming a flat bar of metal which ceases to have any meaning, not only on the level of the image itself, but also in terms of the viewer’s situation, a situation occasioned by the very projection of the film. As mentioned earlier, the skull came from a flea market. The artist himself remarks that, even so, he found it difficult to buy the object on account of the overly potent significative excess borne in the instance of this symbol and no other. The place where the purchase came to be made also seems absurd. Messner became the owner of one of the 20th century’s most terrifying symbols in circumstances so ordinary as to be downright bizarre. Himself somewhat repulsed and horrified by the very process of the purchasing, he recalls that the seller had not the slightest problem with dealing in this kind of object; Messner’s desire to posses a Totenkopf aroused no surprise in him. Then again, the very space where the film was made was also of moment to him. Spending time in Poland during the several extended stays of his residency at the Centre for Contemporary Art Ujazdowski Castle, he had a very strong sense of the memory of World War II, which informs not only places and objects, but, in Poland’s case, the entire atmosphere, historical policy and Polish postmemory, where, in line with Marianne Hirsch’s terminology, the fight for the primacy of memory goes on . A universally potent symbol which is to be subjected to neutralisation in a place/space wholly imbued with history; it was this which was, in all likelihood, the purpose of Untitled (About Gravitation).

Counter-monument; working through the absurd

The image of the Totenkopf on the rails is already so powerful a charge of meaning/memory that, by means of a rather incisive juxtaposition, it automatically generates a symbolic executioner-victim reference system. The Totenkopf reads as a metaphor for the perpetrators, while, in this instance, the railway tracks automatically connote the transports carrying the victims to the concentration camps, the work camps and the death camps. What is interesting in Messner’s work here is that it automatically triggers in us the process of connection with the ‘snapshot’ images and deeds of the Holocaust and war which are so singularly fertile in Polish society. At the same time, his work confines itself to the simple elimination of a significatively laden object, which, in our eyes, as the viewers, takes on multilayered historical contexts. In the sense of macro-history and the reworking of traumas, something like this seems to be fairly absurd; however, in line with the artist’s conception, it is, in fact, in absurd situations that there is a place/space for something new to be born. It is worth noting that Yael Bartana works in a similarly paradoxical way in her film Nightmares, which was intended to stir Jews into returning to Poland. Apart from depriving symbol of meaning by neutralising the significative object that is the Totenkopf, there is one other important thing that Messner does through the medium of paradox, something which I have already mentioned several times. He prods the imagination into action, puts it to the test, triggers it and his work might thus also be considered as a visual counter-monument which, on every occasion, and on the basis of absolute contradiction, erases the symbolism whilst simultaneously compelling recall in a wholly unconventional way.

In 1990, the artist Jochen Gerz, together with his students from the Hochschule für Bildende Kunst Saar (the Saar College of Visual Art), worked on a project which led to the creation of a counter-monument, an invisible monument, 2146 stones – Monument against racism. The significatively ‘permeated’ site was the square in front of the Saar Parliament building, which had once housed the Gestapo’s headquarters. Gerz and his students decided that they would, a stage at a time, remove a number of the original cobblestones, replacing them temporarily with others. Each of the cobblestones they had removed was next engraved with the name of one of the Jewish cemeteries which had existed in Germany prior to the era of the Holocaust and the Nazis (1933). The cobblestones were then returned to the square and replaced face down. The monument is thus invisible to the naked eye; visually, it does nothing to provoke memory in the way that classic stelae, stones, boulders and figures do. Through its invisibility, it works more powerfully upon the imagination of those it touches upon; they are unable to pass it by indifferently. In addition, it prompts the local community to preserve the memory of the very monument itself, handing on the knowledge of it to ‘newcomers’, something which, on each occasion, triggers the process by which the memory of the tragedy of the Holocaust is kept alive. In Messner’s case, it is on a very similar level that his work compels the viewer to recollect the symbolism and chain of meaning which the Totenkopf releases, in order that he might then neutralise it. In the Polish space, this triggering of memory along the line of perpetrator-victim is always extremely interesting, and particularly so when it falls within the category of ‘cooperation’. As Joanna Tokarska-Bakir has observed with extraordinary accuracy, we Poles suffer from the disease of guiltlessness. In watching Messner’s video several time, it is also worth taking note of the fact that he is, in some measure, prompting us to act in a global sense. First comes the process of “recalling/reading the symbol, remembering the perpetrators, the victims and the witnesses” , a somewhat pathos-filled process in Polish society. Then comes the neutralisation of the symbol, which, to an extent, might be read as a challenge to working on memory beyond the sphere of visual artefacts, as in the case of Gerz’s work. Messner’s film also assails us with a very simple communiqué, to wit, Totenkopf ist weg, hence who is to blame…?

The symbol of ‘evil incarnate; popular culture

In her book, Eichmann in Jerusalem, Hannah Arendt follows the trial of a ‘devil in human skin’, Adolf Eichmann, the one who masterminded the death of six million Jews and the only one of such high rank to be brought before the courts. Rather like Christopher Browning, amongst others, in studying the motivation of Reserve Police Battalion 101, Arendt opposes the notion of ‘inhuman evil’ which has prevailed in the general discourse right up to the present day. The Nazis are a symbol of the greatest bestiality, of dehumanisation and of inconceivably ruthless atrocity. The Totenkopf constitutes a kind of stamp, an identifier for the most inhuman monsters in history. Intended to induce immediate terror and, in addition, contributing to the dehumanisation of the perpetrators at the same time, it thus, paradoxically, exculpates us ourselves. In particular, ex-prisoners of the camps recall how powerful an effect the uniform and the entire Nazi wartime aesthetic exerted on them; the swastika, the Totenkopf and the ‘SS’ sign. Many of them recall the uniform, with all its Nazi artefacts, as a badge of an authority which could not be withstood, which struck terror to the heart and, at the same time, compelled deference. In a few recollections, the symbol of the Nazi jackboots appears, the very sound of which presaged approaching danger and was an artefact of hierachisation between executioner and victim.

After the war, the post-Holocaust culture very slowly accustomed audiences to Nazi symbols. It was not until the 1960s and 1970s, during the second wave of trials of Nazi criminals, that an ever increasing number of Totenkopf–influenced symbols began to emerge. In the 1970s, the Italian cinema reshaped the Nazi trauma in the films of Liliana Cavani, Pier Paolo Pasolini and Lina Wertmuller. Earlier, the symbols of the III Reich had begun to appear in men’s magazines, which were packed with war stories featuring bloodthirsty SS-Aufseherinnen, the female concentration camp guards, and innocent American pilots. In this instance, rather like the B-movies of the 1980s and 1990s, the symbolism of the Totenkopf and the swastika were intended as a means of automatically authenticating the story and, along with uniform, of preserving the hierarchy between victim and executioner. B-movies under the mantle of Nazi Sexplotation, films such as Salon Kitty, Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS and The Last Orgy of the III Reich, used Nazi symbols as their sole visual attraction. At the same time, the juxtapostion of Nazi/concentration camp plots and pornography proved to be an extraordinary crowd-puller. Taboos which had no opportunity of seeing the light of day in the general discourse found their ‘niche’ in popular culture. The identifying sign was always the ‘death’s head’, which, rather like the striped uniform of the camp prisoners, had become one of those ‘snapshot’ associations connoting with the Holocaust which ‘have’ to appear in every image touching upon that theme.

The symbol of the Totenkopf is used contemporarily by artists on the music scene, who neutralise its meaning by deforming it. On the cover of their album Tanz mit Laibach (2003), the metal band, Laibach, included the Nazi Totenkopf symbol with a bullet hole in the skull. Marliyn Manson used the ‘death’s head’ juxtaposed with Mickey Mouse ears. In both cases, the symbol of evil, ‘sacralised’ in some way, was absurdly deformed and, hand in hand with that, rendered devoid of its primary meaning. Popular culture swallowed the Nazi symbol with such relish that, perforce, it habituated the audience. At the same time, as Piotr Ukłański’s The Nazis (1998) demonstrates, as a society we are not fully able to accept rather pertinent, universal diagnoses.

Totenkopf ; the end

Totenkopf ist weg!, albeit it that, in Messner’s film, traces remain on the tracks after the skull has been crushed, the impress of an object which, in this instance, could be interpreted as the stamp of the memory that he has stirred into action. In the Polish context, his work takes on an additional meaning, particularly in the shadow of the successive public debates on World War II. Rather like the swastika absurdly carved into Christopher Waltz’s forehead by Brad Pitt in Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds (2009), so that the world will remember, Messner’s Totenkopf is neutralised, brought to the level of an object. Yet the past automatically kicks in,

Joanna Ostrowska