Field Excises
Dehlia Hannah & Nadim Samman
Fabian Knecht: Antikörper / Antibodies, Kerber Verlag, 2018
N: What is it about Fabian’s work that intrigues you?

D: When I first encountered Fabain’s art, through his Isolation series, I was struck by a sense that the images before me were extremely precise answers to a question. In coming to know his other works this impression held, and grew stronger. What was philosophically interesting is that, in their force and clarity, these apparent ‘answers’ made themselves felt as a demand: that I, as a viewer, articulate the question itself.

Fabian seems to consistently perform a move across many of his works, despite their varying content and media. This intriguing operation suggests a repetition compulsion: repeating, remembering, and working through. Freud says that we repeat in order to remember, and thereby to work through the significance of a memory... Only through repetition can traumas that hover below the threshold of consciousness come to light, and only by repetition do we learn what the original problem was. There’s a similarity between recognizing a symptom in this Freudian sense and a peculiar feature of aesthetic judgement, according to Kant. Namely, that one recognizes a particular object or action as an instantiation of an underlying idea. From this perspective, art possesses the unique capacity to give sensuous embodiment to an idea before it can be thought. This, I think, is the root of the eternal war between art and philosophy. I recognize the symptom of a deep intuition in Fabian’s art that contains the root of a well formed philosophical idea… There’s a something sharp and latent in it, like a splinter. I feel the pain, as a philosopher. The War is Not Over.

N: I’m not sure that there is only one question behind all of Fabian’s work, but there is certainly a bloody mindedness. His work is not about compromises. I suspect that the way he conceives the practice of making art, and the function of the artwork, is that the aesthetic and the ethic have to be fused. This appears to be a constant feature of his method across varying media, different contexts, etc.

Ultimately, Fabian demands a kind of consistency – both within the artistic gesture, and around it. He’s not interested in work that just appears to do something, or that only makes sense in its own terms. He requires that the space around him absorb his gesture, and be changed by it. When this doesn’t happen he deems the work a failure.

He isn’t interested in a symbolic ethic. If the implications of a particular work involve friction, conflict, or inconvenience then he is not about to duck them. If you work with him as a curator, as I have, he’s not about to let you duck them either. Fabian is a practical person: His art involves getting people to do things, shifting resources around, etc. but this doesn’t mean that, for him, compromise comes easy.

D: It's fascinating to think about how your perspective is shaped by your experiences as a curator, whereas my encounters with Fabian’s work have happened on the other side of that process. I want to pick up on several things. First of all, maybe the fact that he’s uncompromising is what that immediately drew me in. As you know, I’m no fan of compromise. I think it usually means a dilution of perspective or opinion, and a kind of internalization of the friction, so that if I compromise with you, or with an object, what this really means is that I am swallowing my discomfort. But it doesn’t really go away. I have the sense that Fabian’s work doesn’t require a compromise, nor does it offer one. There is no seduction; no special pleading.

It is interesting that you say that the aesthetic and the ethic have to be fused, rather than ethics, in the sense of morality or politics. An ethic involves a mode of action or habit—a work ethic, for example. In our conversations he’s said very pragmatically that the core of his practice is waking up and making art everyday. He’s rigid with himself and there’s a rigor to his aesthetic. His demonstration seems to reside in that ethic more resolutely than in the overt political statements made in some of his work.

N: Well that makes sense, it must be deeply ingrained in him. You know, Fabian actually trained as a gymnast from the age of 5, and attending a boarding school for sports. That was a really serious thing in the GDR – the training was always oriented towards professional attainment. It’s also useful to remember that the strict training of gymnastics serves the goal of making extremely difficult physical endeavors look light, or inevitable.

D: Wow, that really puts into perspective another point you raised... and it helps me understand the falling man a bit better, how he could conceive a few seconds performance like that—with one chance to get it right... I agree with you that Fabian works against illusion. Occasionally, it’s frustrating that there’s not as much to see as you might like. In some cases, you just get the index of an action, with little background information. But when Fabian does offer up a compelling image, it is presented as though it might just be an image, and not the result of a strenuous effort in the ‘real’ world. He disguises the index as an illusion, when in fact it is telling the truth – like with the cars being moved on the streets of Berlin and Havana. In Isolation, you might overlook the white cube but it is plainly there to see. The negation of illusion is a really powerful aspect of his work.

Finally, I want to unpack this notion that there’s a cut in reality – that Fabian’s work is an intervention in the world. Sometimes it is very small, but the continuation of energy along its trajectory becomes a decisive change, amplified like a wave traveling through the body of the viewer. It has the quality of a change that can’t be undone. What is interesting about a change that can’t be undone is that that is also how you give a direction to time.

What he presents is not a set of alternatives, but a shifting of the course. This not an optical illusion, but more like the gestalt shift produced by a conceptual reorganization of one’s sense of the world. Consider Fabian parking an ambulance outside the Art Berlin fair (ABC) in 2012. Once you realize that this is an artwork, you start to notice people walking past, blithely casting a sideways glance, how the flashing light hits nearby buildings. Even once you leave the art space, you can’t un-see how the presence of an ambulance configures social space, affect and behavior. That small gesture of displacing an object ripples out and magnifies itself.

N: Talking about a possible rejection of illusion with respect to valorizing real change in the world, we approach the question of realism as it appears in the history of art: The ascent of that agenda, which would inform art in the DDR, was the result of an anti-metaphysical current privileging materiality and/or dialectical materialism. In this light, we might characterize Fabian’s (artistic) ethic as informed by a heritage of Lutheran-Marxist idol breaking, alloyed with a proper German hard-on for Teknik. As we focus more on the word ethic, however, I see this designation collapsing into the word Teknik

Now would be a good time to mention what Fabian told us previously. Namely, that his first job was assisting with autopsies. He talks quite eloquently about the process of reaching into a corpse, in order to investigate the cause of death, of following a precise set of procedures to examine the state of its matter, and what was the matter with the person’s body. What he describes are operations in the medical sense, but he carries an interest in diagnosis and post-mortem analysis forward in his art. Fabian, I take from our conversations, imputes maladies of all kinds to material causes, and believes in concrete operations/procedures for addressing these things. Here is his ethic as operation: In order to discover, to diagnose, and treat, Fabian’s works mount an intervention – a cut. Frequently, his art is about making an incision in the social body, which can be painful, disturbing, at the very least profaning of the material reality hitherto withstanding. But Fabian would say that his action occurs in order to dissect the malady, to understand it, or to make visible what was previously hidden.

By the way, doctors and artists forged the humanism that begat every materialism we know. In the early modern world they sat at the dissecting table together. They both had to seek out special permissions, and sometimes questionable suppliers, to access the body, the material, in order to study it, and in order to create a new vision of man and of the social body. I think Fabian recognizes this component of the artistic vocation, and I think he understands that traffic with dissection and intervention is not always about cutting the prettiest figure – be it your own or the one on the operating table.

D: Let’s not overlook Fabian’s act of actual grave robbing, at the home of Picasso. Grave robbing was, of course, one of the only ways for artists and doctors to get their hands on human bodies in the pre-enlightenment period. Under a cloud of suspicion and taboo, they would desecrate the human body in the service of its highest virtues—despoiling it in search of health and beauty. What are we to make of Fabian’s act of breaking into the villa where Picasso is buried in order to harvest a handful of grass growing atop his grave? Grass that Fabian alleges contains atoms of the man himself— On the face of it, it seems kitsch, but if we take it seriously, as you always must with Fabian, then even a tad depraved…

N: A work that suffers from opacity…

D: That an artist should visit the grave of Picasso is predictable, if not banal – Picasso obviously being one of the greatest artists of the 20th century…

N:z ...But, I would say that young German artists don’t visit Picasso’s grave, as a rule, these days. So Fabian’s mission was somewhat exceptional.

D: You would expect a young male artist to piss on it before you would expect him to visit it with the kind of seriousness that one must impute to this obscure image – a close up photograph of Fabian’s open palm, full of grass, accompanied by a few blades of it pressed and dried in another frame. It’s not a reality effect, it’s a relic—an offering! He has grabbed the lump of grass and sees fit to show it, even to sell it in an art gallery. It’s so earnest that you can’t dismiss the paradox: it’s an act of absolute idolatry and iconoclasm at once. His restoration of the desecration of the great masters in the acid paintings betrays a similar logic—he clearly admires the impulse behind those acts of destruction.

But in keeping with this motif of dissection and autopsy, it occurs to me that, in relation to the dissecting table and the acid paintings, which were recently exhibited together in Paris, maybe we should think of Isolation in terms of the visual isolation of a part of the body that is done for the sake of performing surgery. In order to enable the surgeon to focus, you isolate: you cover the body in a monochrome sheet and cut a hole in it—you position it over the body so that an opening exposes only the area where an incision into the surface will be made. In the Isolation works, it’s not just some sort of abstract redeployment of the way that landscapes are framed, in the Claude Glass, for example. It’s closer to the way that the body is framed in isolation, in order to perform and operation on it.

Fabian is not just exposing the cognitive operation of ‘seeing as’ – of imaginatively or literally framing landscapes so as to pick out the angle from which they appear especially picturesque or sublime, or, today, manufactured; disturbed. He actually goes and cuts through pieces of wood and ice, puts white walls through watery swampland. And the significance of this, if we continue the analogy to the body, is that the cut leaves a scar. He performs a physical operation under bright fluorescent lights and takes a picture of it. But he also performs the logical operation, such that you know that it would be possible to frame part of any landscape in such a way. And, conversely, the focal point of the picture also implies the frame around it—perhaps most obviously in the large tree trunk isolated at Baden Baden. The implication that I want to draw from Isolation is that the logical reframing of a landscape also leaves a scar. Seeing is a cutting. And, like a surgeon, Fabian is comfortable with the violence of it. Perhaps this is because he is sure of his intentions.

N: Any operation requires a theater. And this operating theater is always prepared in some way. For instance, a medical theater is prepared architecturally, and with respect to the management of hygiene – foreign bodies kept out, etc. Notwithstanding such obviously physical preparations, theaters are also prepared by intellectual and social systems which script the manner of performance expected within. This is to say, any theater is constituted by prescriptions concerning what type of operations and relationships are desirable. The emergence of Minimalism spoke to the theatricality of the white cube, and latent choreographies of relation between the audience and the artwork. Having critiqued this dramaturgy so thoroughly, art’s escape into notionally unprepared landscapes, such as deserts, was another polemical step. Qua Anthropocene, and the discipline of anthropology, we have come to understand that there are no unprepared environments. When you come to a landscape with plans to execute an operation, you have already prepared the field in some way. You have already circumscribed it, or put it in a box.

D: What happens when the operating theater becomes the theater of war, the body, a landscape, a city, an environment that ought to sustain life? These are also Fabian’s theaters of operation. In them he plays multiple roles, sometimes that of the constructor of illusions—explosions, fires, emergencies, and sometimes that of starring actor. When he walks the streets of New York City in a suit, his whole figure caked with white dust, he is most violently and jarringly indicating the frame that gives his action meaning—the set of historical events, images, people, ideology, matter, in which he operates theatrically: images from New York on September 11; explosive-laced dust from a bombing in Hillah, Iraq; a suit reminiscent of Joseph Beuys, etc..

N: It’s not irrelevant that Fabian’s early working life [after he got out of military service in the morgue] was in the film industry. He also remains quite close, socially, to the live music industry. Both sectors lean heavily on spectacular optics, and the ‘theatrical’ in the traditional sense. They work with pyrotechnics; they present virtual worlds, fantasy landscapes, etc…

But we were talking about the act of placing an (architectural) frame around a piece of landscape. We might also talk about the complicity that holds between the frame of the camera’s viewfinder and this act of architectural ‘isolation’, for the purpose of creating a convincing illusion. But we shouldn’t ignore the bigger picture: In reality, the Isolation project is overdetermined by what the large-format photographic images do not show – namely, a condition that was outlined in a series of accompanying vitrines filled with documentary pictures (at Alexander Levy gallery in 2017). In them we saw how the white cube constructions were actually surrounded by larger landscapes. I don’t think this content should be viewed as bonus material or a ‘making of’. I think it forms a key component of the project’s rhetorical proposition, which is to ask whether one (as a viewer) should really be so credulous; so committed to a well presented perspective. More specifically, Fabian’s operation seems to diminish or unground the sovereignty of the virtual world view(s) made possible by the gallery, the camera, and, by extension, the theater (of ‘art’).

It is as if his Isolation project places the world of art on a plinth, holding it up for inspection. Thus presented, the theater (which supports virtual or illusory worlds that seem so comprehensive) is diminished. It is as if it is too small for the pedestal. Its monumentality brooks questioning. At the very least, it can be handled. Framing the optics of the ‘art space’ within the conditions of a non-art space; circumscribing the field of mimesis within an actual field, made up of grass, shit, rocks and other lumps of stuff, is the substance of the work’s critical import. But, more generally, I think Fabian wants to explore how competent the field of ‘art’ is when it intersects with other fields – such as the theater of war. Does it operate well, or at all? Are its virtues only apparent in isolation?

D: I want to tease apart the spectacular and symbolic acts of destruction that are part of the story of the explosion works, which Fabian did in collaboration with Andreas Greiner. There’s a tension between symbolic associations with the history of Berlin, as a city that has been heavily bombed, along with contemporary threats of terrorism, and our familiarity with very real images of ongoing wars in Syria and Iraq. It seems that Fabian wanted to provoke these associations, to disturb our manner of looking at such images, our comfort with an explosion when we associate it with a warzone that’s far away, and the tendency to see is as a film, a simulacrum, a possible past or future if its localized near home. These works turn on the assumption that they will not be read as a genuine threat to our safety or wellbeing, but rather as a symbol of that threat. It seems to me that they are doing exactly that by hanging in the German Bundesrat. So, its not that Fabian doesn’t work with symbolic images or illusions, it is that when he works with them, he works with them as symbols and as illusions.

N: When he works with symbols and illusions they are in the frame, as such. Is this irony?

D: This is part of his lack of compromise. Fabian always says ‘I get permission to do these things,’ like shut down a street or set off an explosion in the middle of a city, ‘because I say that I’m making a movie’. In the fact that you are allowed to do these sort of things in order to make an image, but not as an action in and of itself. I think this where the irony is. Fabian’s willing to exploit that, even though for him it is always more about having done a thing than having merely appeared to do it.

N: I recognize what you say about the irony of permission. I don’t know if it is everywhere in his work, but it is clearly there in the piece that I exhibited at the 5th Moscow International Biennale for Young Art, wherein he kept an open faucet running for two-months. The possibility of not being able to redeem such a huge waste of water, intellectually and morally, even through recourse to the pedagogical utility of its image was very real. In some geographic contexts it could be judged a properly criminal waste. When considering a work like this one has to marvel at the redemptive operations that are possible in the theater of art, and one must reflect on where such performances dovetail with profanity. It is not always clear to me, when I am speaking to Fabian in order to produce a work like this, if the institution of exhibition making isn’t being put up for dissection. In these situations I feel press-ganged onto Fabian’s stage. By saying yes to him I wonder if I am being framed, or exposed, as an actor. Works like this seem to set one up a fall, as a curator, perhaps even as a viewer. Here Fabian is uncompromisingly true to form.

D: I’m interested in the operation of being framed, in which the fact that something has ‘happened’ situates you, or makes a demand that you cannot escape – or refuse. Fabian’s work interpolates you, in the Althusserian sense, like when a police officer says ‘Hey, you!’ and by turning around with an expression of ‘Who, me?’ you find yourself a subject of the state—you subject yourself to authority by recognizing it. Fabian’s art can be accusatory. A firebomb over a city is something that no one has a moral right or geopolitical innocence enough to ignore, regardless of where it seems to be. But where I think this move is more surprising is in works that are really about very simple physical objects, like the drip of a tap, or a thermometer that holds the potential to measure both you and your surroundings. These very minimal gestures cut into the world, in a way that doesn’t allow you to situate yourself outside of them as a spectator.

N: Fabian’s work can feel like an amputation. His gestures cut into the image of the world – the contours of the good that are a habitual support for one’s performance. Following his operations, you have to work a little harder to establish a stance. This comes back to the iconoclasm that I mentioned.

D: They cut you out of the world like a paper doll, and then you have to put yourself back into it. This is the sense in which, I think, there is a scar – because once you’ve been cut out, and then you have put things back together, you are responsible for them in a certain way. There is now something about the configuration of the world that becomes your fault, or your accomplishment.

Fabian’s images are highly performative. They’re not merely to be looked at. The acid paintings are impossible to bring into focus, they force to you walk around while trying to find the right distance from which to view them, but even the glass is foggy, its dizzying…

Even more so, releasing a rat in the Caspar David Friedrich room of a museum sent people scurrying. Why is the picture of a rat under a museum bench so interesting? In the moment, people were looking at it, taking photos, etc. But the rat is a thing to be looked at live, not in pictures. The same with the alligator—although Fabian strikes a formidable pose with it under his desk in his studio. In the moment, that little rat definitely fucked with the way one might look at a Caspar David Friedrich! Do I look at the painting, or the rat? I can imagine the heads and camera phones swiveling back and forth…

Every image trains you to look at other scenes, other sites, other pictures. This operation gets repeated, transformed and refined in Fabian’s work, as we learn, with him, to deploy the frame visually and to recognize its ideological implications within different contexts. With this micro act of sabotage—on the museum, the tradition of landscape painting, the cult of artistic genius, and the idea of nature itself—Fabian literally trains his viewers in the logic of the frame through their own view finders. Even in a museum, in front of the most classical images of nature, he succeeds in situating us uncomfortably within the theater of nature. We’ve been framed—ratted out.

N: Here Fabian’s conception of the role of the artist, on the social stage, is played by the rat. Both are foreign bodies, out of place, a little obstinate, untamed, but perhaps effective for this very reason. Fabian has chosen the title Anti-body for this book, which invokes both an assault against the body, and that body’s own internal protection mechanism. Here is where Fabian disputes the notional cure offered by the curator, and related mediators of the cultural unconscious. Instead of offering a painkiller, a balm, he insists on operating.