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Thursday, Oct. 13, 2005


Pop mystification

Special to The Japan Times

Sigmar Polke has a lot in common with the medieval alchemists with whom he identifies. Like them, he is interested in transmutation, sometimes employing pigments and techniques that make his paintings change over time. Like those pseudo-scientists of the past, he uses a combination of mystification and explanation to lure the public and patrons. And just as the charlatanry of alchemy led to frequent breakthroughs in the science of chemistry, Polke's often confusing work reveals glimpses of the imaginary philosopher's stone of "true art."

News photo
German artist Sigmar Polke in front of his work "Alice in Wonderland" (1971)

Recognized along with Gerhard Richter and Anselm Kiefer as one of the greatest German postwar artists, Polke was recently in Tokyo for an exhibition of his art at the Ueno Mori Museum as part of "Deutschland in Japan 2005/06."

Throughout his long career, the 64-year-old artist has managed to defy categorization by occupying the space in art between the figurative and abstract, organic and artificial, and highbrow and lowbrow. He is also renowned for giving art critics a tough time, talking in riddles with a heavy German accent and refusing to answer questions about his private life.

I ask him whether artists have a vested interest in mystifying the process of creation.

"Mystification is an old thing," he replies. "I'm not the only one practicing this. People always want to know how something works. It's amusing to stop them finding out."

It's something he obviously enjoys: When I ask for his definition of art, he laughs and says, "Art is good for nothing and good for everything."

Despite his elusiveness, Polke is forthcoming when asked questions about specific paintings, such as "Police Pig" (1986), based on a newspaper photo of a policeman posing with a pig. "I chose this image because it had an anti-authoritarian frisson," he says.

"I transferred it onto the canvas using a projector and then painted in all the dots [from the newsprint] by hand." This process, one of his trademarks, creates images that straddle the line between the mechanical printing process and organic art. By disclosing its inner workings, he also reveals that although this particular work is painstaking in its execution, it did not require any advanced technical skill.

News photo
Polke's "Police Pig" (1986)

The same can be said of many of his other works on show, including the one that gives the exhibition its title, "Alice in Wonderland" (1971), a collage of patterned fabrics with Sir John Tenniel's famous image of Alice and the hookah-smoking caterpillar outlined in white.

So, almost anybody can do this?

"That's right," he agrees. "If people have time for this and they want to do this, they can do it. It's not a question of art or not-art because anybody can do what I do. In fact these days most artists don't make things by themselves. If they want to do something using bronze, they have to employ a craftsman to do this. It's actually a very old pattern that someone can do this, so you don't need to do it. For example, I can't fly a plane."

It's no secret that the modern concept of the artist has become all but divorced from the traditional skills of the craftsman, but, if there are no technical skill requirements, what exactly is it that the artist brings to his work?

"I think what the artist brings is related to his conditioning and the intellectual field," he says.

Take for example "Alice in Wonderland," which juxtaposes a pattern of kitschy soccer scenes featuring tiny players with a dotted fabric that recalls Polke's use of dot matrices. There is also a transparent image of a basketball player overlaying the right side of the painting. These visual elements riff on the famous scene in Lewis Carroll's story in which Alice becomes bigger or smaller depending on which side of the "magic mushroom" she eats, with the presence of the caterpillar (a nascent butterfly) emphasizing the aforementioned theme of transmutation.

Seen in these terms, "Alice" is a skillful work that blends disparate, sampled elements and ultimately weaves them into a complex cerebral tapestry. It suggests that Polke is something of a visual hip-hop artist, a comparison that he is delighted with.

But none of this is immediately obvious, and there is a strong temptation when looking at contemporary art to see it as a complete break from and rejection of traditional culture and its complex associations, as something that doesn't have any point of reference. But Polke doesn't encourage this approach.

Then what's to stop people merely seeing this as a jumble of unrelated elements? "That's just their first view of the painting," he says, "how it looks on the surface and physically when you have no hold on it because you don't understand it. You see it then you touch it very directly. You go in, not in the painting, but in the problem. Then you have more leverage."

Thus the best way to approach Polke's work is to learn as much about the imagery as possible, viewing the pieces as complex intellectual, visual puzzles. Like the alchemists, to whom he directly refers in the allegorized sun and moon figures in "Conjunction" (1983), the willing participation of the audience is essential to transform these works into artistic gold.

Sometimes, as with a Rorschach test, the viewer starts to see things subjectively, that are entirely in their own mind. One critic imagined that the figure in profile in "The Dream of Menelaus I" (1982) was the Nazi Reichsmarshal Hermann Goering. Such interpretations can be an occupational hazard for German artists.

"No, it's not Hermann Goering," Polke explains, amused at the misunderstanding. "It's a chimney sweeper. That idea is taken from an article by a Dutch art critic. I didn't correct this. I didn't explain this at all, so he kept repeating it. It's really stupid, but what can I do?"

The key to Polke's success is that he always sees the other side of the equation. Although art writers may find extremely intricate and often pretentious formulas to explain his art, he himself retains a mischievous and down-to-earth humor. When asked what alchemic transformations he specializes in, he slowly raises himself out of his seat. "I now have a very important transformation," he says with a smile as he heads for the door, "I transform water now to piss."

"Alice in Wonderland" shows till Oct. 30 at the Ueno Royal Museum, 1-2 Ueno Park from 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; admission 1,000 yen. For more information, call (03) 3833-4191 or visit www.ueno-mori.org

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