1 Roland Fuhrmann » 2006 Susanne Altmann: Between ‚philosophical toys‘ and mental afterimages – Roland Fuhrmann and the continuity of image-making media

Susanne Altmann:
„Between ‚philosophical toys‘ and mental afterimages –
Roland Fuhrmann and the continuity of image-making media“

Catalogue text to: ‚VALUTA‘, Museum Goch, 2006

Text as PDF

„Afterimages, those tricks of the retina, are real-existing, physiological, optical phenomena. But it is rare for them to be registered consciously. In spite of this, they are an inseparable part of visual perception – and they shape our sensory experience beyond that which is actually visible. The afterimage takes place, one might say, in the space between one image and the next. The existence of afterimages, and especially their systematic study, has had a crucial impact on the visual culture of modernity. [1]
The nineteenth century was the laboratory where – in a turbulent grey area between play and experiment – the pioneering work in the field was done. In 1827, Charles Wheatstone introduced his kaleidophone, which was already capable of coupling optical stimuli with acoustic and physical processes. The thaumatrope or ‚magic disc‘, developed around 1825 by John Ayrton Paris, was a kind of ′toy based on the principle of the afterimage effect (persistence of vision). Rotary motion causes the pictures on the front and back to merge.‘ [2] And finally, in 1832, the Belgian physicist Joseph Plateau (1801-1883) invented the ‚phenakistiscope‘ which exploited the afterimage effect to produce the first moving-image sequences.
All these devices were ‚toys that demonstrated events in science and raised philosophical questions‘ [3] – so-called ‚philosophical toys‘. This basic quality – a ludic aspect combined with a demonstrative gesture – is present in many works by Roland Fuhrmann. His designs often quote or simulate historical inven-tions, thus evoking early scientific experiments, but now filled with contemporary content. [4]
In this way, Roland Fuhrmann touches on anthropological constants related to the play instinct and the thirst for knowledge. Although, as writers including Horst Bredekamp have observed, the pre-scientific unity of these two tendencies in a techne-related notion of art was beginning to break down as early as the eighteenth century, this ’split [was experienced] not only as an increase in autonomy, but also as a loss‘ – ‚from art’s side, it was a loss of responsibility and ‘life’, from the perspective of science it was a renunciation of freedom and play.‘ [5]
It is within the resulting vacuum that Roland Fuhrmann’s mechanical allegories operate. As a subtle tinkerer, the artist deliberately cultivates anachronistic traits, even when working with state-of-the-art technology. In general terms, Fuhrmann’s apparatuses also touch on the human urge to know the secrets of motor functions – an urge that can be observed firsthand in a child’s mercilessly inquisitive dismantling of a walking doll. At present, with projects including digitally controlled prostheses, scientifically coordinated construction of movement is achieving great things in medicine, but ultimately, in terms of the impulse driving it, this research is still comparable with the construction of humanoid writing and chess-playing automata in the eighteenth century.As an artist, and in terms of what he is aiming to achieve, Roland Fuhrmann can of course afford to simply ignore advanced technological solutions and jump back centuries into the past, both with his kinetic objects and with his kinaesthetic installations. Prominent examples of the latter include the image sequences Prayer Wheel (2004) and Fahneneid (Oath of Allegiance, 2005). Both are based on early forms of moving image, chiefly inspired by the above-mentioned phenakistiscope. And such active references to early image-making techniques are nothing new in Roland Fuhrmann’s work, thanks to his long-standing interest in stereo-photography. [6] The aesthetic distance achieved by using this medium to capture modern motifs creates a peculiar, nostalgic tension – comparable in essence with an anthropologist’s view of an intriguing foreign culture, which in Fuhrmann’s case means the present. But let us return to the phenakistiscope.
In the nineteenth century, this instrument helped bring about fundamental changes in perception (and its manipulation): an updating of the camera obscura, suddenly allowing physiological processes within the viewing subject to be factored into visual stimuli. The viewer became a conscious co-producer of the final work, as retinal afterimages filled in the gaps in the graphic image material on a rotating disc to generate a filmic impression.
Roland Fuhrmann’s works are often based on this completing function, also in an intellectual sense that goes beyond optical tricks to include an allegorical dimension. They unfold alongside or in between the mechanical impressions – both in the case of Prayer Wheel and Fahneneid, and in the six interlocking conveyor belts of Valuta (2006). In this latter work, the absurdity of ‚100 kg of world money‘ – absurd because it lacks a basis in contemporary reality – flows past the viewer as a simple and memorable cycle, leaving behind a clear mental afterimage. In this sense, it can certainly be said to recall the early masters of the mechanical moving image like Monsieur Plateau, even if they were more interested in purely optical phenomena and their duration, graded by the effects of colour. For his part, Roland Fuhrmann extends our attention span: his afterimages continue to work long after the power has been switched off. His Schnelles Museum (Fast Museum, 2004) makes direct use of the afterimage effect: reproductions of famous paintings spin so fast that the slowness of the human eye makes identification impossible, allowing only a hint of the picture’s colour scheme arrayed in concentric circles. When the motif is revealed for a split second – by an unexpected flash of light – what the viewer sees (as one might expect) is not a direct started spinning again long before the viewer’s brain has been able to process the incoming information. Fast Museum – a quick-footed ironic commentary on the euphoria surrounding MoMA’s visit to Berlin – is also a good illustration of the parallels between Roland Fuhrmann’s strategies and those of Via Lewandowsky. The effects of the latter’s sculptures – whether mechanically enhanced or not – are often cited as a source of inspiration by fellow Dresdener Roland Fuhrmann, three years Lewandowsky’s junior.
A conspicuous feature of most of the works discussed here is the key role played by cyclical repetition and thus rotation. Its symbolic quality above and beyond the mechanical becomes a decisive moment in Roland Fuhrmann’s oeuvre, strikingly and meditatively visualized in the comic-nonsensical scenario of Stausi 1. Simulator für Verkehrsstau (Traffic Jam Simulator, 2004). In Fuhrmann’s interpretation, the seemingly endless return of the same makes metaphorical and metaphysical claims, quite in keeping with the early ′philosophical toys′ and their tireless serial image production.
These stories from the infancy of animation, the desire to set images in motion, are discussed at length by Jonathan Crary in his essay ‚The Techniques of the Observer‘ [7] with reference to early (manual) mechanisms. The image-making devices of the nineteenth century were the legitimate heirs to the automata and clocks that amazed visitors to pre-museum cabinets of curiosities – with a combination of play and science. The art of Renaissance clock-making – be it the astronomical clock at Strasbourg Cathedral (1574) or the rolling ball clock in Dresden (1602) – was the high point of the functional-aesthetic synthesis that was so popular at the time. These clocks presented cosmological or historical issues and were allegories on the universal themes of the age. It is no surprise, then, that Roland Fuhrmann has long been smitten with the complex mechanics of clocks, with the idea of measuring time. Here too, in the resulting works of art, he goes beyond mere technophilia, identifying and using the symbolic function of these machines which, at the time of their invention, not only measured the passing of time but also symbolized it on an eschatological level. Fuhrmann’s hourglass, for example, carries this aspect in its title – Memento (Mo)tori (2003) – as well as in the metaphor it materializes. The sand, actually meant to symbolize the finiteness of human life, is mercilessly kept in motion by a laser-controlled automatic mechanism, sparking associations with anti-aging and cryonics. Another clock project focusing on the theme of changing notions of time is the Wochenenduhr (Weekend Clock, 2005, patent pending!) with its obvious reference to the present. ′Thanks to the Weekend Clock‘, says the artist, ‚people will no longer carry on working right through the weekend. Freelancers and managers will rediscover a balanced lifestyle with their families and with social contacts. During the week, the acrylic glass tube stays dark. From Friday evening until Sunday night, the weekend glows with radio-synchronized precision in Caribbean blue.′
This anecdotal brevity is also proof of Roland Fuhrmann’s ability to occasionally eschew the laboured profundity of artistic critiques of society, relying instead not on additional levels of interpretation but on flashes of humour. An approach that remains true to the idea of the ‚philosophical toy‘ – and to the retinal and mental afterimage.“ Susanne Altmann

Translation: Nicholas Grindell

[1] I refer here to the theories of Jonathan Crary. See Jonathan Crary, “Techniques of the Observer”, in: Techniques of the Observer. On Vision and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century, Cambridge/London 1992, p. 97 ff.

[2] http://www.wernernekes.de, On his website, the collector and filmmaker Werner Nekes presents his collection of early image-making apparatuses and an extensive glossary on pre-cinematographic developments.

[3] Joseph Wachelder, “Nachbilder, Natur und Wahrnehmung: Die frühen optischen Untersuchungen von Joseph Plateau” in: Gabriele Dürbeck et. al. (eds.), Wahrnehmung der Natur. Natur der Wahrnehmung. Studien zur Geschichte visueller Kultur um 1800, Dresden 2001, p. 255.

[4] In his appreciation of Werner Nekes, Bazon Brock describes such a strategy of continuity as beneficial, although not with direct reference to the apparatuses in question. But it is clear that they play a mediatory role – especially considered the content of Neke’s collection: “But the imaging techniques of new media opened up the specific strengths and achievements of the ‘old’ media: photography/film gave access to the genuine strengths of easel painting, pictorial narrative in history or paintings, in still life, in the fresco. This is born out by McLuhan’s dictum that the content of new media grow out of the exploration of the specific strengths of the old media.” In: Bazon Brock, “Werner Nekes stiftet Mediengeschichte – Zur Korrektur des heutigen Medienwahns”, www.wernernekes.de/retro_haupt.htm.

[5] Horst Bredekamp, Antikensehnsucht und Maschinenglauben. Die Geschichte der Kunstkammer und die Zukunft der Kunstgeschichte, Berlin 1993, p. 96.

[6] The viewing device known as the stereoscope is also a nineteenth-century development, invented in 1849 by David Brewster in the context of daguerreotypes and photography.[1] I refer here to the theories of Jonathan Crary. See Jonathan Crary, “Techniques of the Observer”, in: Techniques of the Observer. On Vision and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century, Cambridge/London 1992, p. 97 ff.

[7] Jonathan Crary, op. cit., p.102 ff.