The Obscure. Concealing and Revealing in the work of Thomas Behling
by Dr. Heinz Stahlhut
Surely art is there to be looked at! The viewer should delight at luminous colours and dynamic forms, slip into contemplative silence at its prized innocence and silent magnitude, or be enraged by its depiction of indefensible social conditions and stirred into action.
But artist Thomas Behling continuously frustrates this expectation in his work. In Foresight, 2017, the face of the elegant man depicted in the portrait is hidden under a black stain. The irregular edge of the stain suggests it is formed by spray-paint. Such like would be considered an act of vandalism in the public sphere: when faces on posters are defaced or completely covered over. If in the first instance it is pure coincidence which face is attacked, there is another element, more likely in the realm of the art work, namely the damnatio memoriae, that is to say the concealing of the face as a deliberate and specific act, in order to obliterate an adversary from public memory. At any rate, in Thomas Behling’s composition, it is precisely what is of most importance in a portrait that is hidden and denied the viewer – the face.
Retracting the visible
Also in Self-knowledge 2016, the viewer is denied a glimpse of the face, but this time of their own. In this sculpture, the only things displayed by the mirror-object are the shadows and reflections on the glass walls of the vitrine. This sculpture is a construction composed of two mirrors mounted horizontally on top of each other, where the glass side walls prevent one from seeing one’s reflection. The only things this mirror-object allows one to see, are shadows and reflections of the glass walls of the vitrine.
Concealing is again the case in the 2016 work Sunrise on Lesbos II. Stains and a small hole on the wall lead one to approach the wall and peep through the hole. A view of cliffs and a gentle pink-hued sea, seemingly tinted by the rising sun, meets the eye. But despite this impressive view, the situation is unedifying for the viewer. In order to peep through the hole, the viewer must relinquish their controlling overview of their surroundings and risk being caught and considered a voyeur.
The purloined letter
The Collage Finally peace with German History, 2013, in which coloured stamps bearing the image of Adolf Hitler form a rainbow, is a game of hide and seek. The meaning is concealed by the fact that, a stamp is a fake, and the rainbow – an image of peace since the Old Testament, becomes invalid. As in Edgar Allan Poe’s famous detective story (link), in which the eponymous purloined letter is hidden in the most obvious place, namely a letter tray, the fake stamp is hidden under a real stamp and conceals the deeper meaning of the collage.
In Behling’s oeuvre however there are also works, which demonstrate the functioning of illusion, thereby shattering it. The Morning Star Shines From Afar, 2015, shows the apparent symmetrical and gold silhouette of a pine tree forest made of cardboard on the front glass wall of a box frame. The question of why this form is displayed in such a case, is explained when one looks at the narrower side of the object. From there one sees a construction of fine wooden slats, recalling the scaffolding used to display and fix billboards on the street. The scaffolding exposes the early romantic motif of a cluster of trees, borrowed from the painting of Caspar David Friedrich, and which in its symmetry and design recalls, not by chance, gothic sacred architecture, as an illusion, and its implied promise of redemption as lies and deceit.
There are several reasons why the element of concealment features so regularly in the work of Thomas Behling. It is clear that the artist takes pleasure in found materials and bricolage, in putting together foraged items, which often gives them new meaning. As in the saying, the „chance meeting on a dissecting table of a sewing machine and an umbrella“ coined for the first time by Isidore Lucien Ducasse in his 1868 Chants de Maldoror, to capture the linking of two or more objects that we do not see together in everyday life, and which bore fruit already with the Dadaists and Surrealists, as Ducasse’s immediate disciples, the meeting of opposing objects, also in the work of Thomas Behling, lends the objects qualities that are hidden to us in everyday use.
Furthermore, playing with concealment stirs the viewer’s fantasy. A famous artistic example of concealing is Marcel Duchamp’s 1916 Readymade With Hidden Noise. This marks the transition in the work of the artist from the use of simple everyday objects, elevated to art through Duchamp’s signature and unusual placement, to elaborate assemblages, which Duchamp described as „assisted Readymades.“ In Easter 2016 Duchamp placed a ball of twine between two metal plates and asked his friend and sponsor Walter Arensberg to place an object in the hollow in the centre of the ball, without telling him what kind of object it was. The two metal plates were then fixed with screws, so that by shaking the construction, the object in the centre would move and make a noise – the eponymous hidden noise, but one would only ever be able to find out what the object was at the cost of destroying the construction.¹
This game with concealment as an engine for the viewer’s imagination is unsurprising in Duchamp, who always accorded a large role to the viewer in his work, as he explained explicitly in his 1957 lecture The Creative Act. “All in all, the creative act is not performed by the artist alone. The spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualifications and thus adds his contribution to the creative act.“²
With his objects, which share the humour and subversive energy of those of his great predecessors, Thomas Behling need not conceal himself among the Dadaists and Surrealists.
¹ Ann Temkin: Twentieth Century Painting and Sculpture in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia 2000, page 48.
² Cited by: Marcel Duchamp: Der kreative Akt, in: Marcel Duchamp, published by Museum Jean Tinguely, catalogue Museum Jean Tinguely, Basel 2002, page 43.
© 2017 Heinz Stahlhut
Published in the exhibition´s catalogue "Das Rückspiegeleiland" (Kunstraum Neureut, Germany, 18.1. - 4.2.2018)
translated by Alexandra Hudson