Dresdner KULTURMAGAZIN 04/98


ART IN PUBLIC SPACES: An Artist Book on the Internet

By Susanne Altmann, translated by Cathryn Drake

Initially, Hans Witschi wanted to study hands in their different postures. Therefore, he collected numerous newspaper clippings in which those limbs were to be seen. But soon these gray-white images of human tentacles began to take on a life of their own. A thicket of gestures and actions opened up; purpose and sense of motion submerged within an almost universal ornament. All of a sudden, the New York-based artist from Switzerland found himself in the middle of a gigantic project: that of a "handbook" every sense of the word.

The book of hands and arms now had to be classified so that it would not end up as a never-ending series. But how could the artist impose an order upon the fragmented limbs? And would they still be capable of expressing something beyond their connection to a political or a social event-beyond any visible context? It was simple at the beginning: the left and the right hand (A), the single hand (B), the not-touched touch (I), and others. In the process, a kind of ontological sequence developed rather incidentally. The two hands of category A represented primary unity. Then followed separation (the single hand), which Witschi relates to segregation and to birth. Next comes the exploration of the outside world, with "Hand on an Object," and then contact with others in "Hand that Touches Another." The symbols lead further via "Growing and Identity" (arms, category F), on to "Transience and Inevitability," and thus until the end of human life.

With the "Handbook," a unique artist book had been created-touchable and unfolding-and a timeless teatrum mundi of human striving had been put onstage, solely featuring the hand. Because of our desire for order and eternal longing for stability, the categories themselves had to be divided into subgroups, which were then glued onto paper scrolls and formed into easily surveyed friezes.

This artwork of considerable weight was displayed at the New York art bookstore Ursus Books and will travel to the Swiss National Library in Bern in April. Moreover, it can be viewed worldwide on the Web, where the pages can be turned more with more animation. By launching the Website "Handbook," Witschi has been able to gain a visual simultaneity of the single strains of action not possible with a book made of paper. Different than the physical version of the book, the virtual one offers the subordination of the single motif into a choir and a seemingly geological sedimentation of substance. Single strips may placed on top of each other like scrolls of writing and then playfully enlarged. This survey of the graphically impressive friezes does more justice to the "Handbook" as an ontological epic than any glass case in a museum possibly could.

For ages, at least in the Western past, friezes legible from left to right served to convey stories of salvation and other heavyweight narratives. Starting with cave painting and going via Giotto through to Diego Rivera, talking images form a thread through history. Witschi explicitly thinks and acts like a traditional painter. The paintings for which he has become famous rely frequently on "the horror of things whose meaning is not instantly disclosed" (Witschi). Anthropomorphic beings bend themselves inside of a vacuum and seem to represent anxieties despite or even because their colorfulness. For the artist from the East Village, the temporary rejection of the canvas was also a self-collection, above all a literal collecting and piling of clipped images.

This is not the place to articulate an apology for art on the Internet. But the format of a Web page has enabled Witschi's book to take on a new, more profound quality. Exclusively through the use of images from newspapers, Witschi has created a kind of a "personalized Pop Art" that uses for dissemination the medium of the Internet, which consequentially may be compared to the process of silk screen, which was used by the original Pop artists. So please, don't hesitate at the threshold when calling up "www".