Hermeneutic Works of Art
Karl Marx’s famous charge that “philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it” can also be applied to artists. After all, both philosophers and artists rave about theoretical and aesthetical speculations while apparently ignoring the world around them. But some artists, like some philosophers, envision a different theoretical and aesthetical realm in an effort to change the world. Martin Heidegger, Gianni Vattimo, and Slavoj Žižek respond to Marx in similar ways. Heidegger points out that changing the world requires beforehand that thinking be changed; Vattimo posits that to interpret the world is already to change it; and Žižek directly calls for more interpretation as we try to change the world too rapidly in the twenty-first century. If we follow these thinkers’ responses to Marx we notice that our priority should not be to change the world but rather change how we think about it.
It should not come as a surprise that the architect of hermeneutics—the philosophy of interpretation—is also a philosopher who dedicated most of his life to showing that art, like science, also manifests truth claims. According to Hans-Georg Gadamer the experience of an artwork is exemplary for what happens to us generally when we understand anything at all because knowledge is not a matter of representing or mirroring reality as accurately as possible. “We understand,” as he points out, “only when we understand differently.” Knowledge is not something that we acquire and control as a possession but something in which we already participate. It’s this participation that allows knowledge to take place; in other words, the change that Marx referred to is always already underway.
The goal of this gallery is to present a number of interesting young artists who are producing “hermeneutic works of art,” that is, works meant to inject meaning into a world that has been changed too quickly. This meaning implies a participation where truth is claimed rather than found in order to disclose new realms of understanding. Each work is an invitation to “step back”—as Heidegger would say—to reconsider our material, environmental, and technological condition. This is why all the artist’s work with objects, material, and contexts that are already embedded in our everyday experience. Their goal is to allow these common objects to acquire another meaning for a different change, that is, another world. This is why art, like philosophy, should be our first step if we want to change the world.
Johan Gelper, Demountable Spatial Drawing XX, 2016. Courtesy of the artist.
Johan Gelper is a Belgian artist whose sculptures and installations have often been referred to as “spatial drawings” that disclose another dimension. This dimension is evident in the alterations the material undergo in his sculptures. In this work, a chair, panels, and screen frames are altered into looping fiberglass tubes that not only reveal a “spatial drawing” of different colors and dimension but also defy the laws of gravity. If Gelper’s sculpture is a “hermeneutic work of art” it’s because it alters objects that we already know, that is, whose meaning is embedded in our everyday experience. The “step back”—as Heidegger would say—that this work demands from us is meant to envision a different aesthetical realm. It is an example of how to interpret rather than seek to change the world.
Arturo Comas, S/T (“I don't understand anything”), 2018. Courtesy of the artist.
Similar to Gelper, Arturo Comas also works with material already embedded in our everyday experience, such as wheelbarrows, wood boards, and shoes. Although he does not alter the objects as much as Gelper, the compositions he creates render these objects useless for their original purposes. The Spanish artist’s interest is to disclose an “uneven” or “unsteady” reality where the world equilibrium is intentionally challenged and stirred. The new functions of the three objects chosen by Comas are also a call to “step back,” that is, to reconsider their functions and acknowledge that the change they are after might not be enough. The hermeneutical nature of his work is evident in his intent to “cuestionar lo que hacemos y nos rodea, desaprender lo aprendido y verlo con ojos nuevos” as he declared in an interview. This is nothing more than a call to reconsider our priorities, to interpret the world before trying to change it.
Xavier Mary, Sun Tower V (The Last Guardian), 2021. Courtesy of the artist.
Another example of a hermeneutic work of art meant to change the world is this sculpture by the Brussels-based artist Xavier Mary. The truck tires, light tubes, and reference to the sun in the title all point toward an apocalyptic future where we will have to come up with new ways to survive. The remains of the past—the used tires—are things we not only can’t get rid of but also must incorporate and transform in order to have, for example, light. Similar to Gelper and Comas, Mary also works with common objects, but these are all worn out, having been used for other purposes before being turned into works of art. His work is a good example of postmodernism, that is, the long farewell to modernity that has become the only way out of its burden. The change that Mary foresees invites to revisit the past, to interpret what we cannot overcome.
Michael Johansson, Kloss (Block), 2018. Courtesy of the artist.
A productive interpretation envisions not only a different theoretical and aesthetical realm but also an acknowledgment of the current situation. This second feature is particularly evident in Michael Johansson’s sculpture. The absence of space is at the center of the Swedish artist’s works, which consist of geometric sculptures, ready-made assemblages, and constructed installations composed of cars, suitcases, plastic, and metal containers. These objects are jammed together in a monochrome color scheme to disclose a world where everything, as Heidegger once said, is coercively placed (“gestellt”) and able to be ordered (“be-stellbar”) as a uniform, replicable piece of a standing reserve (“Bestand”). Against this standing reserve it is our duty to interpret its meaning differently, that is, envision a different world without the excessive standing reserves that have become part of our lives.
Giandomenico Tonatiuh Pellizzi, Financial Times, 2014. Courtesy of the artist.
The installation from the Mexican American artist G. T. Pellizzi draws on hexagrams from the I Ching, financial publications, and graphs to thrust us into the world of calculations and profit that characterizes our economic institutions, generally represented by the Financial Times. In this world the future must be predicted; it cannot be left open to chance or interpretations. Pellizzi invites us to interpret these analytic tools, to reconsider their true role and purposes through an installation that discloses, as he once said, their “mythological undertones.” Our desire to design the future is nothing other than a mythology if we consider how often we fail. Like the other artists, Pellizzi has also altered charts and graphs that have become common symbols even though few of us understand them. Their reorganization in the installation is meant to reinterpret their meaning before allowing them to dictate our future.
Mónica Rikić, La máquina que juega sola 2021. Courtesy of the artist.
Similar to the other works shown in this gallery Mónica Rikić’s sculpture incorporates the central features that constitute a “hermeneutic work of art”: insertion of meaning, common objects, and a step back that allows new realms of understanding to emerge. As the title indicates, this work consists of a “machine that plays by itself,” both physically and digitally. The goal is to provide the public with a type of machine that they cannot control and command. Rikić’s presents one that not only plays alone but also reacts negatively if we watch it play for too long as it’s capable of detecting human presence. At that point it invites us to leave through its loudspeaker and a digital speech system. As we can see, we are here called to step back from changing the world through the machines at our command and understand the consequences of these same machines. Rikić’s invites us to reconsider our technological priorities in such a form to envision alternative machines, that is, worlds.