Wednesday, February 23, 2011
OUR MAN ON THE GROUND: the drawings of Constantin Luser
Our Man on the Ground: the drawings of Constantin Luser
Traveling together tests any new relationship. One may have known a person intimately for years but the moment a map hits their hand in an unknown country a completely unexpected person may emerge: the control freak, the guide, the timid foreigner. How we navigate and present ourselves outside of our known infrastructures and comfort zones is frequently a revealing process—and can clinch a relationship, or destroy it. There is the partner who can't travel without 20 books in tow, or the person who refuses to make a single decision about where to eat, there is the lover who never turns off their mobile phone or brings their own utensils into restaurants to combat foreign germs. Who knew? Until the moment we hit the tarmac flying together off to uncharted lands who could have predicted these travelling peccadilloes?
It can be a living hell travelling with another person's idiosyncratic travel tendencies, or it can be an absolute joy to revel in the expansive person beside you—the one only seen while traveling. Through drawings, travel books, and sculptures Constantin Luser invites us to be his travel companions in an ongoing journey through real and imagined places as his extenuated travel experience. With his finely tuned and sometimes jumpy hand he draws out the episodic impressions and implied possibilities of the places he goes, has gone, will go. And although we have not endured the trip together in real time we are now, as viewers, invited into the chronology of his travels to witness the idiosyncrasies, obsessions and interests of a traveling mind as he moves about the world.
Guided by the drawings, the books and the resulting installation works one is left with the impression that Lusar is a curious and vigorous mind to travel with, having a keen eye for the exceptional and banal alike. In these map-like sketches people's habits, tools, landscapes and symbols are all fielded through the technical yet playful black on white drawings of Luser. In the books textures and patterns meld into figures, words and diagrams. Each page of the travel volumes is a continuation of the previous, a hint at the future and a work in its own right. There is also an innate speed and incompleteness to sketching that makes one curious to look on …and we do.
The drawings appear to being trying to teach something, to guide the mind's eye toward an innovation or upgrade of some abandoned or neglected concept. Simultaneously, the drawings are a bit like looking at blueprints and wondering what is it that we're looking at, only to discover it is your own home. Except that these are not dry dioramas or architectural specs—but in their rigorous variation the drawings sieve through and offer out information, technical and superfluous in kind. Luser presents us with the extremely familiar yet unrecognizable situations. They are unrecognizable situations in that they are never fully ours to own.
Rigorous imagination combined with the teaching aspects of Lusar's drawings brings to mind the pedagogical notebooks of Paul Klee. Like Klee, Luser’s drawings also share an aspect of invention, and a bit of the artist and mad scientist struggling to give form to invention and progress. Klee's earnest pedagogical notebooks, like Luser's work, combine the natural and the industrial world. Twittering Machine, 1922, the seminal work by Klee that depicts bird characters with mechanical elements juxtaposes these two life-long interests of the artist. Inventions, an earlier series of etchings illustrated Klee’s departure from the average conventions of representation and explored his own exceptional capacity for imagination. Luser, too, delves into the naturalistic as well as mechanical forms in a suggestively didactic way through imagined pictorial landscapes.
Documenting travel in images and words has a long history. Today the world is, as they say, small. It is a small world made so by huge shifts in technology. Unlike Sir Edmund Hillary’s 1953 historic ascent of Mt. Everest with Sherpa mountaineer Tenzing Norgay, today’s climbers can phone home, check their GPS, and instantly send images back via satellite. Luser, by embracing the old world technology of pen and paper, perpetuates the travel impulse of documentation while staying firmly grounded in his time. The graceful drawings seem more reminiscent of steamboat travel and safari expeditions than the age of the Boeing 777 and bullet trains but are always contemporary. While each drawing functions as the artistic equivalent of a scientific hypothesis, it is Luser’s anomalous embrace of the past and the future that endears the work to the viewer. This old/new contradiction ultimately defines and balances the work.
Luser has, like any good travel writer, visions of the places he goes and things he considers vital to relay about them. There are countless sketches of machines, repeating textures, animals, faces and façades. There are side margin notes and descriptions, symbols and directions, some random and some elaborate. There are other times when drawing itself becomes the subject matter superseding any lesson or description and instead developing a fluid linear blackness. The blackness may be punctuated by numbers or a date or the vestiges of the drawing before it. By doing this, offering up the Lost Days—like John Lennon's 'Lost Weekend' (as he describes 18 months away from Yoko Ono)—Luser shows the gaps in the teeth of his drawings. It is a blacked out day or a week, maybe a year, and the editing, the self-editing activates a whole litany of other considerations. What don't we see? If these are travel diaries of years where did all the days go? What happens in-between time? The self-editing is a vital part of Luser’s process of displaying days in sketch form and imbues the whole lot with an immediacy and energy that is addictive to look at.
In Graham Green's 1958 novel Our Man in Havana the protagonist attempts to justify his time and job position as an intelligence officer, pre-Cuban Missile Crisis. It is his duty to make himself invaluable to the British Security Service back at home as a sort of under qualified but enthusiastic spy in Havana, ferreting out military secrets, weapons arsenals and troop activities. He is failing grossly in his attempts to find any sort of real military threat. What he does find is a vacuum cleaner (he is a vacuum cleaner salesman). And what he does do is to dissect the vacuum cleaner and draw its parts to a different scale while adding threatening numbers and possibilities—all unknown, but suggested. The imaginations of the head honchos back in the UK are engaged. Our protagonist is encouraged to stay on the job and investigate further. The whole ordeal is a farce but a lovely poetic delving into wartime fear and paranoia, the power of visual suggestion and man's ability to exploit, encourage and persevere. It is about the full potential of the ingenious imagination. There is sympathy in this story to Luser’s own work. Creating a need where none exists—arguably, like all artists—to convey urgent information.
One wonders what all these diagrams in Luser's drawings are, these carefully contrived mechanizations. Are they plausible inventions? Extracts from the actual? Is he holding a bomb in his hand or a vacuum cleaner? The beauty and horror of the whole thing is that we don’t know. Even when the machine drawings become sculptures it does not necessarily clarify what the object does. The sculpture’s functionality coming second to its object reality—just existing. The sculptures can be considered as byproducts of the drawings. This is an interesting reversal to the contemporary sculpture model, where often the drawings are made to supplement the objects. By adhering to drawing and sketching as primary source material it feels as if the sculptures truly arrive from a process of travel and seeking on a two-dimensional level. Reliance on sketching fortifies the sculptural works, which can themselves appear like large-scale 3D drawings, spontaneous sculptural sketches. In a large scale work, Light Type Writer, hundreds of light bulbs were installed on the side of the Graz Telecom building, and passers-by could activate a street level control panel to write messages, images, symbols on the building’s façade. Light Type Writer is an amplification of the artist’s own working methodology and a quirky public communication.
Luser, by being both vigorous and vague, by offering a loose handed testimonial to the world he sees by implication, suggests that there are many things not being considered or seen around us. There are many scenarios not being imagined. He draws them for us, he insinuates his point of view on places we have seen or will never see. They are not apocalyptic; they are just possibilities, machines with no inherent meaning perhaps, until they are drawn. One wonders at the technology of the objects not yet made, imagined. Objects and drawings by Constantin Luser serve as a proxy to the actual travels of our man on the ground. Havana or otherwise, vacuums or bombs.
(Originally published 2008 for Augarten Belvedere catalogue.)