Kunst in München

The text was written for "Arbeiten 2007-2014", 2014

Art, they say, is always a reflection of its time. It works with the technical achievements that are at its disposal. It picks up themes that are politically, philosophically and culturally relevant and, in ideal cases, affords us new insights into our time.
Our era today is defined by media. Knowledge, in compressed forms, can be rapidly accessed electronically and we can digitally wander to far-away places. In what Neil Postman refers to as the epoch of the Second Enlightenment, knowledge is not a question of depth but rather of speed. Since images are comprehended faster than texts, they have become the language of our generation. In the 1990s we, for the first time, read about the Iconic Turn, thus meaning the change from a text-based information society to the picture mediated society of digital media. In our day to day lives, we are inundated with a flood of images that, unconsciously, are assembled into information in our minds.
Johannes Karl uses the digital accessibility of images, as well as their potential to be altered, processed and reconceptualized, to redesign existing images. Thereby he conceives the works that he has appropriated and created as a universally understandable language to highlight current issues.

One of the basic questions that Johannes Karl asks in his work is how we handle historical images in the digital age. He understands the art history of the last centuries not as something that is in the past, but as a collection of stories and narratives that can be picked up once again in newly focused ways.
This understanding is already present in his early works. In 2006, almost one hundred years after the debut of early Cubism, Karl expanded the analytical and synthetic Cubism in a new digital form. Views of an object were superimposed on a computer. Images of architectural lines in flamboyant and artificial colors emerged, in which the subject that was captured in the original photograph became only barely recognizable.
The possibility of digital alienation also plays an essential role in his video animations from the following years. In “It’s all so pretty” (2009), an idyllic landscape with cowherds, painted around 1900 by Otto Strützel, breaks up and transforms into a glaringly-colored pop video loaded with art historical quotations. Electronic sounds accompany quotations from poems written by Ludwig Thoma. Words such as blessing, nature and domesticity are visualized through views of petty-bourgeois residences. They are then interrupted with disturbing elements from pornography and swastika aesthetics. In this video Karl, who was born in Dachau in 1982, deals with the history of his hometown, the rural ideal of Dachau’s 19th century artist colonies, as well as its stigmatization as a concentration camp site during the Nazi period and its perception today as a conservative suburb of Munich.
The video “The Wanderer” (2012) also plays with the transformation of viewing. A man stands on the edge of a rock and looks out at the wonders of nature. This is an image that is deeply engrained in our collective cultural memory: Caspar David Friedrich’s “Wanderer above the Sea of Fog” (1818). But gradually skyscrapers rise out of the ground. The man remains standing, now admiring these new wonders. His feelings, however, remain the same.
Both video animations begin slowly, giving the viewer time to absorb the images before they are appropriated and reveal a new perspective. Painting, with which Karl began his studies in 2002 at the Munich Art Academy and which continues to be foundational in his artistic practice, shows a moment; whereas, video allows the moment to be embedded in a temporal framework. What creates new opportunities for the art producer takes an essential element of individual interpretation from the audience: the opportunity to lose oneself in the moment. This is because the film is in constant motion. The eye cannot wander freely. The gaze is predetermined. We follow the artist’s vision, a circumstance favorable to the work of Karl, as for him art always acts as a medium of self-questioning. Therefore, Karl shows himself in the figure of “The Wanderer”.
Even in self-representation, he follows an art historical tradition. His most recent work, “Last Supper” (2014), is dedicated to six painters who staged themselves in self-portraits: Beckmann, Dürer, Rembrandt, Rubens, Schiele and van Gogh. Karl uses the reproduction of their self-portraits as a basis for his animation, in which he brings the artists together in a situation similar to a talk-show. But there is no communication. The artists, individually, deliver quotes and sayings that today form the repertoire of their biographies. Through frequent reproduction the fame of the artist has not only increased but has also become dated. This references the danger that Walter Benjamin already drew attention to in 1936 in his fundamental text “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”. Instead of merely producing an increase, reproduction can also lead to devaluation. That detaching images from their historical contexts also has the potential for re-evaluation is clearly demonstrated in works such as “Jesus Playing Basketball” and “Tambosi” (both from 2011). Karl removes figures and objects from paintings from the Bavarian State Picture Collection and sets them into motion interactively. Fra Angelico’s Christ looks almost meditatively down at his halo, which slowly bounces back and forth between his hands like a basketball. “Tambosi”, named after the oldest café in Munich, gathers 45 prominent figures from both the Old and New Pinakothek Museums in a drinking hall. Grünewald’s holy Mauritius speaks with Murillo’s grape-eating boy while Ruben’s dying Seneca begins to dance and Stubb’s pointer roams through the crowd. In the end, the characters break into individual parts that then melt together in a new abstract swirl.

The age of media has significantly altered how we handle images. The widespread distribution and availability of art historical works and ideas has robbed them of their original meanings and turned them into material, which Johannes Karl knows to use for his work. Besides referencing new digital possibilities, he shows us one thing: one can only comprehend what has passed. Even our eyes only recognize what it can compare to the pictures that our memories store. So history becomes a tool for Karl’s imageries. These are not only the mirrors of their time; Karl uses art to hold up a mirror to time itself.

Anja Huber / Translation by L. Sasha Gora