Speech for exhibition opening for Thomas Kühnapfel
Copernicus - Graphische Werkstatt Werner Placke KG, Alfter, 2006

"Praise him, praise the God of Iron"
Osbert Sitwell

   Few things surprise you nowadays, which is particularly true of art – even more so if you have seen a lot of it. Proof of this is a freshly emerging wariness in objective painting; it is the case with the so-called media arts; and it is true for those disciplines that fill a space three-dimensionally. If you visit any art fair of your choice a suspicion might quickly be confirmed that most contemporary artistic production displays a very strong imbalance – though it may be a convenient one – between the technical efforts and the strength of artistic imagination.
   If this feeling increases when it comes to sculpture, this may be so because sculptures produce three-dimensional opposites. Therefore they automatically have a stronger physical presence than a flat painting or a television screen can ever have. Of course this doesn’t mean that if, for example, you were a crazy American artist you couldn’t order enormously enlarged trivialities from traditional Madonna figure
carvers in the Ammergau in the Alps, and then recommend these as an investment opportunity to a naïve industrial magnate. Nonetheless, it remains crazy and has as little to do with visual art as folksy music has to do with folklore.
   It can easily be explained why this is the case, which doesn’t help much to improve the situation: sculptures, more than any of the other mediums, depend on the knowledge of the materials from which they are made, and the skills with which they are used. Formulated more sharply: he who isn’t in command of his material cannot elicit anything essential or new from it; the technical efforts are simply too high and too specific to leave success to chance. And, to say it more cynically, with the decline of Germany’s university system, where a famous name rather than profound technical knowledge lead to the appointment of a lecturer, increasingly, artistic know-how can no longer be taught because the teachers themselves don’t posses it. Joseph Beuys, on the other hand, whom delirious idealists like to invoke, was a professor with great skills and almost merciless in his strictness…

   Thomas Kühnapfel has studied under Tony Cragg. Cragg, like Michael Sandle, Robert Ward or Richard Deacon, belongs to a generation of sculptors who master their profession as if it was second nature and with finesse: tu felix anglia. It appears to be one of Cragg’s virtues to convey the value of a material to his students: to develop a flair, sensitivity and instinct for a material, which make it possible to extract the impossible, the baffling, the unique – that which turns art into creation, making it distinctive and indispensable. But the emanations of teacher and student are quite different from each other. Those who have had the pleasure of visiting Cragg’s studio will have encountered a mixture of alchemist’s workshop and medieval builder’s shed, including the specialists and assistants involved in the execution of the work. The sculptures one leaves behind are so peculiar they could have grown on another planet.
   Kühnapfel’s sculptures, on the other hand, seem curiously familiar. Even so, a strange feeling persists because, at first, one is unable to explain how they might have been made. They obviously appear to be handmade – which is confirmed by the welding seams – yet we know from our own experience that copper, steal and aluminium cannot be folded into shape, even less can they be stroked or punched – especially not in these dimension. And yet the sculptures appear so soft.

   They look as organic as if they were alive, as if they were breathing under the surface’s skin, rising and lowering themselves into a room, as if they could move around, take over – animal-like, fluctuating. Without a doubt, they are very present creatures. But reason tells us that metals can only be moulded when in liquid states of transition, or under enormous pressure. The latter is exactly what Kühnapfel is using as his design tool: water pressure, compressed air, vacuum – inserted through a nozzle (which are often still visible resembling outsized balloon spouts) distended, perforated into negative forms, sucked back.
   Of course, the beginning is a gamble with the principles of chance: it is impossible to tell where exactly the metal will show resistance; and where folds, bends, ridges or bubbles will appear is hard to control and predict. Pressure can be increased or reduced, but the deformations occur quickly and spasmodically in those areas where the material is less resistant than the pressure, i.e. where the material itself was heterogeneous. Though the procedures follow the laws of physics, they are as well subject to the rules of chaos and probability. But this also greatly contributes to the works’ intrinsic quality and appearance, their noticeable individuality.
   To allow for these things to happen requires artistic sovereignty – which is as related to maturity as it is to craftsmanship – and the ability to surprise oneself, considering all the concise planning and preparations which are necessary for this kind of work. Let’s not forget that sculpting is the most work intensive and expensive medium in the field of art and sloppiness simply wouldn’t be economically viable.

   Alienation, mutation, irony; this oeuvre is full of ambiguities. This is equally true for the work’s titles: Air Mattresses, Pillows, Fishing, Animals. They may sound straightforward and obvious enough, almost banal. However, they put the visible sculpted results even more in question in the sense that with this ostensible simplicity the gap between appearance and impact widens even more. Although the vocabulary is borrowed from elastic, workable tubes, pelts and cushions, the rigid, erratic presence of the sculptures ridicules it: fluidity without a cast, the animalistic without biology, a series without repetition. Being true to the material in its excess; narration without anecdotes. After all, the artist, born in the Lower Rhein area, is a storyteller…
   We are told through the billowing movements of Fishing and the fauna-like force of Animals. The latter, all muscle and bone, oozes with power and dynamism, with its limbs arranged in pairs around the torso – since the idea of the axial symmetrical animal is most common in our biosphere, the indivisible number of the sea star’s arms being an exception. Because of this one gets through the sculptures the impression of a presence with predatory qualities, or at least something wild; something that is much larger, more versatile and stronger than the beholder. But not a word of this has been said. The tensions of the contradictory are not diminished by the generalizations of explanations.
   What Kühnapfel achieves is fascinating, substantial and of lasting effect, and he succeeds in something very rare: he adds something to sculpting that has never been seen before – his self. Could you ask for more?

26.11.2006 // Gerhard van der Grinten