By catrin lorch

by Catrin Lorch
Expeditions in the Coral Reef

“The ancient hordes are best imagined as floating islands. (.) under whose protection homo
was able to develop into a being that outwardly avoids conflicts and inwardly
“Im selben Boot”, Peter Sloterdijk (1995)
The philosopher seeks new images to describe the polis; unlike Plato (“the farmer from
Athens”), Sloterdijk does not want to characterize the city-state and its surrounding territory
as figures from the agrarian age, using motifs related to plant growth and animal breeding
which then work their way through to defining the nature of control in cities. He therefore
develops a three-stage theory: a generic history based on the imagery of shipping and
seafaring. “Nothing could be more natural than to represent the first period with the symbol of
rafts, upon which small groups of people drift through vast expanses of time; the second as
the age of coastal shipping, with state galleys and command frigates bound for dangerous
distant destinations and guided by a vision of greatness that is psychologically embedded in
the holy order of men; and the third as the era of the super ferries which – almost
unsteerable due to their enormous size – move through a sea of drowning souls, with tragic
turbulence by the sides of the ships and anxious conferences on board about the art of the
possible.” The book “Im selben Boot” (In The Same Boat) carves the stages of civilization
into the masts of history, and from the primitive form of shipping Peter Sloterdijk shapes an
extended womb.
This metaphor is upturned in “Straßenbild mit Squatterwagen” (Streetscape with Squatter
Wagon); here, the streetscape resembles a simple raft. Olaf Holzapfel created the sculpture
from layers of fibreboard and PVC sheeting, tied up with lengths of different-coloured string.
It hangs inside the gallery space as if it has been stretched out to dry – or are we just meant
to imagine the accompanying breakers? The plastic ropes recall unhitched rigging, the
transparent plastic sheeting lies on deck like slack sails, and the genuine Erzgebirge
fibreboard looks more like rotten wood than solid building material. The “streetscape” – which
could just as well be a tacked-together map or the blown-off roof of a slum dwelling – might
conceivably serve as a backdrop for a scene from a morality play set on the open sea.
There is a tradition behind this: less than two hundred years ago, the sinking of the Medusa
established a very different myth to that of the protective womb, presenting the raft as an
existential realm beyond the bounds of civilization. With a deliberate sense of absurdity,
Théodore Géricault’s famous painting of castaways crammed together on a flimsy wooden
raft has been chosen to grace the cover of Sloterdijk’s book. The painting was made in 1819,
a year after the “Confidential report for the Ministry of the Marine” was published – a detailed
description of the castaways’ twelve-day odyssey. Of the one hundred and fifty people left
stranded off the West African coast, only fifteen survived, including those who wrote the
account: the ship’s surgeon Jean-Baptiste Henri Savigny and geographer Alexandre
Corréard. The anarchy on board the raft reached horrific proportions: sick or injured people
were thrown overboard in order to increase the wine rations, while others were devoured as
‘provisions’. In the early twentieth century, Siegfried Kracauer likewise evoked the myth of
the Medusa with his interpretation of the film screen – the successor to the painting – as
“Athena’s polished shield”: a way of being able to behold horror with impunity.
A Collection of the Most Interesting Narratives of Shipwrecks, Fires, Famines, and
Other Calamities Incident to a Life by Maritime Enterprise; With Authentic Particulars
of the Extraordinary Adventures and Sufferings of the Crews, Their Reception and
Treatment on Distant Shores “The Mariner’s Chronicle”, Archibald Duncan (1806)

Literary history does not record whether the young editor of the “Southern Literary
Messenger” was familiar with Savigny and Corréard’s account – but he certainly approached
the topic of seafaring by reading about it. He worked his way through the four volumes of
Archibald Duncan’s “The Mariner’s Chronicle”, the subtitle of which promises a panorama of
horror. He reviewed Jeremiah N. Reynolds’ “Report on the Committee of Naval Affairs” and
studied the South Seas with the aid of Benjamin Morrell’s “A Narrative of Four Voyages, to
the South Sea, North and South Pacific Ocean, Chinese Sea, Ethiopia and Southern Atlantic
Ocean and Antarctic Ocean”. Besides useful “Sailing Instructions”, this book also contains an
episode entitled “Massacre Island”, which describes how cannibals massacre and eat
thirteen members of the ship’s crew. In 1837, “The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of
Nantucket” was serialized in the “Southern Literary Messenger”; a year later it was published
in book form in New York and a parallel printing was released in London: Arthur Gordon Pym
was the first novel written by Edgar Allen Poe.
As if the author has taken his source material as literally as maps, the nautical world he has
distilled from adventure novels appears confined, lawless, perilous, disastrous and
claustrophobic. The young stowaway Arthur Gordon Pym first becomes the victim of a
mutiny, then of a shipwreck; he is brought to the boundaries of civilization and beyond, into
the maelstrom. By the middle of the book, four men are adrift on board a listing whaling ship
following a violent storm, having survived only to be condemned to a worse fate. On a few
square metres of wooden planks floating only centimetres above the water level, humanity is
negotiated – the men steal from each other and get wildly drunk; as sharks circle around
them they show courage, despair, greed and skill; they collect rainwater in white sheets, and
before they eat a Galapagos tortoise a great deal is learned about the species. One man
dies of gangrene, and one is to be eaten by the others – they draw straws, and the very man
who made the appalling suggestion draws the shortest straw. A ship appears – but not to
save them, as the entire crew of the Dutch schooner are corpses. Then, however, the brig
turns. Again the men are sitting on board the ship, but the wind of history has changed: now
the keel is thickly covered with nutritious barnacles, a shower of rain brings drinking water,
and shortly afterwards a schooner comes to their rescue.
Amid this phantasmagoria, the reef coral – with greater earnestness – displays its less lively
colours. Its beauty lies in the form. It stems above all from the context, the noble view of the
jointly built city. The single individual is modest; the republic, on the other hand, is imposing.
“La Mer”, Jules Michelet (1860)

If “Straßenbild mit Squatterwagen” were a stage on which Arthur Gordon Pym and the three
mariners were huddled together, perhaps reason could sail across the sea and pick up the
castaways? Then it would not be the horror of the Flying Dutchman crossing the lurching
path of the capsized crew in the early 1830s, but rather the MS Beagle on her return journey
from Argentina. Charles Darwin himself would rescue the unfortunate souls – all four of them,
the strong and the weak – in time to prevent their self-mutilation. The sick would be cared for,
there would be enough water and food for all on board, along with Galapagos tortoises and a
piece of coral which the young Charles Darwin had found on the beach by Puerto Deseado.
As a naturalist accompanying the expedition, Darwin was fascinated by the tiny red branch –
coral was neither animal, nor plant, nor mineral, and yet was all of these. Darwin’s drawing
skills were limited: for years he attached his thoughts about the origin of species to the
branch tips of coral; the traditional image – the hierarchical model of the genealogical tree
with its high and low branches, its dead wood and its strongest shoots at the top – was
almost forgotten. “The tree of life should perhaps be called the coral of life,” he wrote. The art
historian Horst Bredekamp has followed Charles Darwin in his reflections and recounts the
naturalist’s enthusiasm for coral: “Coral was not only able to convey the image of evolution
as a battle painting with living victors and fossilized dead in a particularly vivid way; in its
growth form it also represented the anarchic aspect of the development, and as such it
contradicted a mimetic understanding of the tree model.”

Such models were extremely popular in the mid-19th century. Any natural scientist who
wished to argue against divine creation and the theology of the cross had to find manifest
symbols. Hugh E. Strickland, for example, a zoologist and geologist, recorded bird species in
cartographic fashion – his depiction of the relationships between the species resemble late
antique maps of the world: the species are shown as different countries, spread out like
islands in the sea, with relationship lines connecting them like the routes taken by seafarers.
When Alfred R. Wallace, a younger naturalist, published brilliantly argued essays on the
origin of birds, using of all things the model of a tree (an oak) to exemplify the branching of
the species, Charles Darwin ungraciously commented that Wallace was “using my image of
the tree” and hastily readopted the genealogical tree model. His book “Origin of Species”
triumphed shortly afterwards, not least because Darwin cleverly conveyed the results of
decades of research in concise, catchy phrases (e.g. “struggle for life”, “survival of the
fittest”) and at the same time linked them to the archaic metaphor of the “tree of life”. Darwin
never forgot the coral, however; throughout his life he enthused about the beauty of coral
reefs and banks.
A Traveller in Japan

When I meet Olaf Holzapfel he has just spent several weeks in Japan. He otherwise lives in
Berlin and Dresden, and also studied in New York. When he talks about Tokyo, the
conversation quickly turns to the subject of the city’s architecture – fashionably smart by day,
the assiduously up-to-date Japanese take suitably unconventional routes at night through a
city that disintegrates into many islands. He has brought back business cards; instead of an
address they show a round map section with references to nearby train stations or prominent
buildings. There is a system inscribed into this city of over a million inhabitants – one that
purposefully loses sight of the whole. Photographs show the route networks of the
underground system to be a series of complex connections, which can be laid on top of one
another like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle printed in different rasters. While the rest of the world
has adopted common standards that make it possible to join the metro maps of Paris,
London, Berlin and New York together almost seamlessly, the actual geography of Japanese
cities is not shown anywhere in the tangled lines of their maps. Paying no attention to scale,
topographies, or the binding nature of the points of the compass, these maps focus on
specific routes and intersections. There is a history to this: on the complete “Map of 1000
countries” from the 17th century, Japan is depicted at the centre of the world. This image of
the world, designed in Nagasaki under the direction of Europeans, may visualize a certain
pretension, but perhaps, like old pilgrims’ maps, its intention is merely to help the Japanese
find their way in the world.
Keeping the ornamental, autonomous routes of uncoordinated Japanese cartography in
mind, Olaf Holzapfel followed the lines of pavements, streets, park paths and footbridges; he
was particularly impressed by the paths for blind people, which are laid out with grooved
yellow tiles; they cut their own pattern into the road surface and at the same time avoid
intricately paved areas by making sudden changes of direction and side-steps. With his gaze
fixed firmly on the ground, Holzapfel also traced the stone paths through an old garden,
where at least five different patterns and materials alternated in the space of just a few
20 Drafts & 20 Decisions

“Hand und Fuß” (Hand and Foot) was the title of Holzapfel’s 2005 exhibition at the Galerie
Gebr. Lehmann in Dresden, for which he brought together works on canvas, such as
“Seitwärts geradeaus” (Sideways Straight Ahead), and sculpture. “Seitwärts geradeaus”
presents a confusing array of perspectives, rhythms and refractions; if this painting, which is
more than four metres wide, were a photograph, one would guess that these were extreme
distortions generated with a special effects lens – like an old street map, the image seems to
be split into different sections through folds and creases; if it were a reflection in water,
ripples would agitate the abstraction while the refraction of light would cut through its surface
“20 Entwürfe & 20 Entscheidungen” (20 Drafts & 20 Decisions) looks as if twenty fibreboard
boxes have been mounted on a table, exactly covering its surface: not a single centimetre
protrudes over its edge. Eight of the boxes have a red exterior, another eight a blue one, and
four have been left white. The basic form of the boxes is a perfect square, however the sides
are corrugated. When the boxes are placed next to one another, overlaps occur at the
edges, creating spandrels and offcuts. Each side of the installation presents a new aspect –
a grid formation like a tightly packed city, fluctuating horizons or the shadows of a dense
cluster of houses: a talking topography with the potential for seemingly endless
recombination. Like a Sol LeWitt piece in which modules become fields of possibility, Olaf
Holzapfel’s “20 Entwürfe & 20 Entscheidungen” insist on a potential that is far from being
exhausted with this arrangement in the gallery space.
Olaf Holzapfel knows that the secret of architecture and cityscapes cannot be discovered
through explanation. Of course there are coordinates, grids and fixed points of reference –
plot size, eaves height, angle of light, number of storeys – but what makes a high-rise like the
Seagram Building in New York look so distinguished? Is it the narrow, shiny bronze ribs Mies
van der Rohe used to give the façade its shimmering texture, which envelops the building
like an aura? “First we do a good building, then we consider the site”, the man with the cigar
once wrote. In Japan, such absolute consistency would hardly be possible. Olaf Holzapfel
experienced it for himself: Tokyo builds incessantly; none of its houses are permanent
structures, and for this reason modernity is established there with functionable rather than
functional interruptions. What the property owner needs is what is built, and even the most
elegant blueprint can be dented by the subsequent addition of a restaurant dome.
Meridians and Notions of Scale

Listening to Olaf Holzapfel, it becomes clear why the leaps and meanderings are necessary;
that it makes a difference whether we orient the direction of our thoughts towards the
rampant growth of coral or the ascending motion of trees. To what extent may reality avoid
our inventions? Olaf Holzapfel’s paintings and sculptures reveal irregularity, potency and
beauty. In a world that would rather cling to the tree than get its feet wet in the salty water of
the coral reef, that remains true to scale and thinks in centimetres while it crosses meridians,
they could act as a map and compass for castaways.
Translated by Jacqueline Todd


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