Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Fabula: The Mythological Mind of Joachim Waibel

Telephone, Sculptural Object, 2015: rotary phone, tarred and feathered.

“You never see further than your headlights. But you can make the whole trip that way.” E.L. Doctorow
Joachim Waibel works with fabricated dreams. A mixed-media visual artist and poet, his art practice is interdisciplinary and multi-faceted and has one common denominator: he uses whatever symbolic form in whatever medium best conveys his philosophical interests at the moment of creation. From drawing and painting to photography and film, from conceptual sculpture to concrete poetry, his creative approach is living proof that the medium is the message. Originally from Germany, where he was born in 1959, he relocated to North America in 1973 and has since explored many avenues of self-expression, in keeping with his eclectic cultural upbringing and diverse experiences as a maker. He is very German but he is also an international citizen of a conceptual country without borders. He is in fact a neo-faber, a new maker, and his active Vancouver-based studio is exploring fresh and flexible ways to operate above and beyond the traditional gallery system. He is also a postmodern renaissance man of sorts. A new maker of what? A maker of tall tales told visually, of fabula, the original name for all our stories and narratives. Out of the seductive stories that he weaves he also manufactures a steady stream of hypnotic miniature worlds for us to contemplate and even to dwell in temporarily.

The other identifying trait his works prompt in me is that of the emblem, in his case some very enigmatic emblems indeed. The emblem is an ancient communication device which combines words and images in order to convey usually moral lessons. Perhaps the digital internet age is an ideal time to reexamine human nature, our virtues and vices, in light of how much we have changed over time since the original emblemata books of the medieval age, and, perhaps even more importantly, how much we haven’t really changed at all.

Red Owl, 2015: mixed media, collage, assemblage.

First developed in the 16th century, emblems consist of three parts: a symbolic picture (pictura) with a motto or title (inscriptio) and an explanatory poem or epigram (subscriptio). Emblem books proved popular for more than two hundred years and thousands were published across Europe. The purpose of the emblem is to indirectly convey moral, political or religious values in forms that need to be decoded by the viewer. The pictura often juxtapose ordinary objects in an enigmatic way so as to offer a reader the intellectual challenge of attempting to divine all the allegorical meanings. In this way, emblem books typified the extraordinary Renaissance and Baroque aesthetic in which objects were thought to contain hidden meanings and concealed links between apparently dissimilar objects were believed to exist.

Emblem books exercised an enormous influence on literature and the visual arts, and therefore they have long attracted the attention of scholars interested in painting, decorative arts, literature, illustrated books, iconography, symbolism, theories of representation, social and cultural history. Our basic situation remains the same even though it has been enhanced by highly sophisticated tools which enable us to imagine that we are all one global culture (or village) interconnected and immediately interfaced through devices which now control us as much as we use them.

Perhaps the most enigmatic emblem object Waibel has thus far produced might be his Medusa sculpture, utilizing digital computer cables and a replica skull and crossbones, a common medieval symbol for the Vantitas theme. It is juxtaposed here with an image from Emblemata Nova, by Peter Isselburg in 1617.

Waibel’s Medusa forms a uniquely telling icon figure which hauntingly echoes Isselburg’s image of military d├ętente, replacing the heraldic weapons with electronic cables in a singular evocation of the ancient Greek myth featuring a demonic figure whose power turns the viewer to stone. The connections which are devised to melt our communities together might in fact be turning us into something utterly unexpected, something so similar to science fiction, in fact, that we cannot even give a clear picture of their potential consequences. This is one of the first emblem images in the series, and one that invites us to pause and reflect, to consider the nature of human nature in a new light, one that embraces the alteration of truth, veracity and even reality, in light of the almost supernatural force in all our lives which technology has now become. It provides an entrance to the deceptively simple yet deep question: what is true and what is merely human vanity?

Like his tantalizingly strange construction of a telephone covered in feathers, his tarred and feathered violin is equally compelling in its capacity to activate waking dreams, to start our minds wandering into adult fairy tales of considerable charm. From what surreal world does this exotic music emerge? Clearly it is a mythological realm where the fabula rules, where the logical left side of our brain is fully subordinated to the poetic right side. And yet, like the telephone, it has the quirky feeling of being a scientific exhibit in some fanciful museum of dreams. Or nightmares, depending upon your inclination. The extreme relativity and intimate content of his works is only surpassed by their peculiar beauty and stylistic cheekiness.

In art history there aren’t a thousand formats; there are only four: portrait, still life, landscape and abstract, each having to do with perceptual vantage point. And there aren’t a thousand themes in art history; there are only four: nature, self, society and spirituality, out of which myriad subject matters can be spun like silk. Each of these four zones is like a seed which expands and explodes into the universe inside and outside it.

Typo, Sculptural Object, 2015: poem, old keystroke typewriter covered with feathers.

Most artists tend to specialize in one of these formats and one of these themes. But then Joachim Waibel is not most artists. Multiplicity is his middle name and he is spiritually curious enough to want them all, sometimes all at once if possible. He is an interdisciplinary thinker and consequently he tends to explore his ideas in multiple media, sifting through their material processes until the right form meets the right content. Intermedia is therefore the most accurate means of accessing what he is aiming for and at in his pop-existential experiments.

He draws, paints, sculpts, photographs and films ideas into being, using images, objects and poems as the main currency for his communication projects. Believing that there is no art until there is communication, he naturally espouses an interactive aesthetics which includes the viewer/participant as a willing collaborator in the final production process itself.

Any given work is not finished until the viewer adds their own perspective and internalizes it into their own intimate realm. Thus what began as an idea, after being transformed via alchemy into a wide range of art practices, also ends as an idea, in the heart and mind of a public. One person, ten million people, the result is the same: a feeling is fleeting but the form it assumes in the three-dimensional world is permanent, especially if passion and pleasure are incarnated as art objects.

Contacts, 2015: mixed media, collage, ink.

The transcendent abounds in the uniquely touching and even amusing works of Joachim Waibel, where every attempt has been made to liberate a thought, desire, dream or dread from the bondage of a limited perception and to let it fly away into a sky made of free thinking. One of the ways in which the four themes and four formats in art are permitted to become almost infinite in their variation is the power of recursion, the inspiring process best depicted in the Fibonacci sequence, where each element in a series of forms is built upon by absorbing the preceding element and expanding the series. Thus the engraved invitation to a marriage between the perceptual and the conceptual. A happy co-habitation, so to speak. The sheer sensory overload of Contacts is a good example of that happy love affair between sense and thought.

Waibel is the inheritor of the Duchampian lineage, after it was first inherited by Fluxus and then bequeathed to Andy Warhol, who then passed it on much in the manner of the child’s game of telephone, with new phrases and meanings being added to the message in each generation, whether by accident or design. But this is a spiritual telephone of the highest order. Accident is design in the end. If there is a fifth art format it must surely be conceptual: that is the wedding gift given by the 20th century.

Let There Be Fire, 2015: mixed media, assemblage, collage.

Waibel’s portraits are not often of people; they are more often portraits of objects, usually utilitarian and even dislocated in a slightly melancholy way. He gives them life again by playing with them in a respectful but mischievous manner. He is a mischief-maker par excellence, just as Duchamp and Warhol were. That, in the end, is the job description of the best artists: to make mischief with our hearts and minds. To me, that is the allure of his fetishistic assembly of matchbooks in his Fire piece, a conflagration in waiting. Indeed, his charming but scary portraits of devilish owls, including a Bosch ghoul, are a similar kind of allegory.

Waibel’s landscapes are not necessarily outdoor environments; they are more often landscapes of objects, or, more accurately described, mindscapes, once the object has been liberated from its former quotidian function. Its new function is fun. Serious fun. The kind of fun Schwitters had when he transformed his own home dwelling into a living museum of hauntingly beautiful merzbau relics. By touching objects with a certain bemused reverence, Waibel turns them into relics, but perhaps relics which will fully reveal themselves only in the very distant future, if there is one. Waibel’s still-life works are not so still. Often they tremble. Everything he assembles on the tabletop of his mind is throbbing with glee. His collections of items, grouped in methodical and even compulsively hermetic orders, show us life as lived, not frozen into the artificial groupings of classical still life. And yet they do perform the same vanitas function: to demonstrate that we are mortal, that time is fleeting, that it has already flown. Life is fugitive. It cannot be held or grasped or contained or controlled; it must merely be gently caressed as it floats tenderly by. It’s enough to make you cry. In fact, it often does. But our tears, as the song says, will dry on their own, and in fact, our tears are the only real evidence that we were here at all. All art is already abstract since it is all abstracted from nature to one degree or another. His vertiginous urban-scape is a delirious example of this merging of the real and the surreal in a kind of dance where meaning is swept off its feet.

New York, New York, 2015: mixed media, collage.

There is a repeated use of patterns, multiples, clusters, serial sequences, collections, archives and replicas in Waibel’s work. The tongue-in-cheek ghosts of Duchamp and Warhol whisper in his ear every day. This loosening of boundaries, for example, is the reason why Higgins believed that Duchamp was possibly an even more important artist than Picasso. The overwhelming patterns of Tick Tack Toe, for instance, thus yield a gorgeous and harmonious gestalt in the Warholian endgame which they proffer to the valiant eye of the intrepid viewer with patience for their  calculated moves.

Fables, the tales that emerge from the source of all fabula,  is a literary genre in verse or prose that features animals, mythical creatures, plants, inanimate objects or forces of nature that are given human qualities, such as verbal communication. They illustrate or lead to the interpretation of a moral lesson which may at the end be added as a pithy maxim. A fable differs from a parable in that the latter excludes animals and nature as actors that assume the powers or actions of humankind. A person who writes a fable is a fabulist; however, the notion of fabula has evolved over time to actually form the basis for all storytelling, both the fictional and the fabulous.

Tick Tack Toe, 2015: mixed media, collage, ink.

One insistent fable he often explores is the apparent inevitability of warfare in the human narrative, repeatedly asking the why and wherefore of our all-too-enthusiastic appetite for utter destruction, as in his elegant but oddly disturbing panorama of military generals in the epic 1914, and again in the thematically linked aquatic version of mutually assured oblivion titled Western Water. In that image he has presented a theatrical display of vainglory in the form of proudly staged military portraits which ask us just what it is we find so romantic about armies, navies, air forces and the like.

Why are they perceived as so worthy of our admiration when in the end they generally only serve to mindlessly obliterate the very homes we ask them to bravely defend? For me the shocking element in their composition is how readily our eye settles in to the obvious elegance and balance of their graphic splendours. Beauty is such a deceptive thing, really, and we are so innocent of eye and heart that we can easily be convinced that some master plan of grandeur is being enacted in warfare, when really it’s perfectly obvious to any child that nothing but a bizarre spectacle of barbarism is actually at work.

These works ask us to reconsider what we all might actually mean when we so glibly tongue the word "patriotism," when it seems abundantly and historically clear by now that only sadism and masochism are really at play in the political chess matches of nationalistic head-butting.

Western Water, 2015: mixed media, photographs, collage, ink.

Among the great fabulists in history are Aesop, a Greek storyteller from the mid-6th century BCE; Gotthold Lessing, a German writer from the 18th century; and Felix Samaniego, an 18th-century Spaniard -- as well as the metaphorical trickster figure of Till Eulenspiegel in the wild tales of adventure by the German visionary Hermann Bote in the 16th century. These are among the finest fabricators of fables in any language. But now that we have established our parameters, it’s plain to see that fables are not just fantastic stories involving supernatural situations: they eventually evolved into the modern novel itself. The fables being explored by the visual tongue-in-cheek performances of Waibel are what I might refer to as fractured fables, tales bent out of shape to accommodate the quizzical postmodern and potentially singular meaning-free world we all currently inhabit.

Jonathan Swift and his amazing Gulliver allegory and Samuel Richardson, creator of the Pamela and Clarissa stories, both arrived in the 1740’s and were two of the first fabulous novelists in history. At roughly the same time, and in roughly the same place, Laurence Sterne composed the incredible tales of Tristram Shandy and was a postmodernist even before the modern age. How did he do that? Clearly there was more here than meets the eye. As a matter of fact, all three of these fabulists were from the future: each one was a time-ghost, the literal meaning of the word "zeitgeist." You might even know one yourself without actually realizing it.

Zox 2, 2015: mixed media.

One of my favourite motifs utilized by this artist is his insistent application of the humble rubber stamp and ink. In his hands, the rubber stamp becomes as talkative and sensitively endowed as a medieval paintbrush. Indeed, perhaps that is his whole point. The machine age has rendered us rather mute rather than increasing our ability to communicate, and that’s not even taking into account the shimmering mirages offered to us in the digital menus from which we make seemingly free choices as to the potential annihilation of our real appetite for sensual experiences that don’t involve pixels. Waibel’s medium really is his message.

The critic Teju Cole once remarked that objects have the longest memories of all, that beneath their stillness they are alive with all the terrors they have witnessed. In the case of Joachim Waibel’s interactive temporal and printed artwork, the objects in question are very simple, or at least at first glance they may appear to be. But in the hands of the artist, these same objects acquire an allure and mystery which outdistance their apparent immediate meanings. This is because their meanings are now emotionally tattooed on our hearts. Joachim Waibel has an emotional passport to every imaginary country. It is stamped with passionate smiles. His mythological mind far outstrips either the left or right hemispheres to we have all decided to acquiesce, to surrender. No one takes anything literally anymore, but Waibel does. This means his whole life is a metaphor, but not a metaphor for something else. A metaphor for itself.

Donald Brackett is a Vancouver-based popular culture journalist and curator who writes about music, art and films. He has been the Executive Director of both the Professional Art Dealers Association of Canada and The Ontario Association of Art Galleries. He is the author of the book Back to Black: Amy Winehouse’s Only Masterpiece (Backbeat Books, 2016). In addition to numerous essays, articles and radio broadcasts, he is also the author of two books on creative collaboration in pop music: Fleetwood Mac: 40 Years of Creative Chaos, 2007, and Dark Mirror: The Pathology of the Singer-Songwriter, 2008, and is a frequent curator of film programs for Cinematheque. His current work in progress is a new book called Long Slow Train: The Soul Music of Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings, being released by Backbeat Books in Fall 2018.

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