The work of Lars Köspel comprises the meticulous transcription of texts across several sheets of paper and/or objects, creating intricate forms that speak to both the subjects of the texts themselves, as well as to wider socio-political concerns which have resulted from their interpretation and transmission. To this end – and considering remarkable amount of time required in order to single-handedly and laboriously re-inscribe these texts – one is naturally compelled to draw comparisons with the transcription of the scriptures that occurred from the time of Constantine I’s Edict of Milan of 313, and continued right up until Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of the modern printing press. Such devotional acts are probably best represented in the phenomenal books of hours which flourished on the European continent for the best part of 1200 years, and which commonly comprised the painstaking copying of texts, psalms or prayers onto velum or paper, alongside lavish decorations and illustrations. This association is no-doubt reinforced between Köpsel’s work and the pre-Gutenberg transcription of texts is no doubt reinforced by one of the series drawing directly from Dante’s Commedia, as well as by the present exhibition being held at the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Christliche Kunst. However, rather than focus on the pre-industrial nature of the act of copying texts, this paper instead wishes to adopt an alternative position: considering the artist’s decade-long engagement with both the history of art, and with arts practitioners across East Asia, it will instead seek to position the works within contemporary debates concerning both the performative/gestural act of art-making, as well as with the history of modern calligraphic forms of abstraction as they have emerged throughout the world from the second half of the 20th century onwards.over in the period since the end of the Second World War.
Of course, one aspect of Köpsel’s work that significantly deviates from the aforementioned transcriptions of the books of hours concerns the il/legibility of the respective practices. That is, irrespective of the amount of illumination contained within these medieval manuscripts, the primary purpose of the act of creating a book of hours pertained to making the psalters legible (and therefore accessible) to a wider audience; enabling a secular public to incorporate elements of monasticism into their devotional lives. For this reason, rarely would the illustrations and decorations interfere with the legibility of the texts themselves – save for the major initials – with miniatures normally occupying a page adjacent to the text. Furthermore, in order to enhance the legibility of the texts, many books would be written in a combination of Latin and a vernacular European language; as their primary purpose was to be read and recited, comprehension and the intelligibility of the texts were paramount.
In contrast to this, text plays merely a symbolic and/or gestural role within all of Köpsel’s work. That is, selection of a piece of prose is fundamentally based upon a pre-existing understanding of its significance vis-à-vis the forms which it will demarcate, with its actual transcription necessarily resulting in its complete and utter erasure at the level of comprehension. To this end, Köpsel’s act of re-inscribing the texts must be viewed solely at the level of gesture; the corporeal act of repeatedly moving the pen across the surface of the work, necessarily detaching (and erasing) the linguistic signifier from its dialectical signified. To this end – and considering the artist’s long-standing interest in the arts and culture of East Asia – one detects a connection between these actions and those undertaken by practitioners of Chinese calligraphy is useful, whose repetitive gestural motions similarly dispel etymological clarity in favour of the expression of “sheer life experienced through energy in motion that is registered as traces […] with time and rhythm in shifting space its main ingredients”. Indeed, by focusing of the purely gestural nature of the act – and considering the limited range of movements that need to be precisely repeated in the creation of a larger form – one could also draw parallels between Köpsel’s practice and the rigorous training undertaken by Ningyō jōruri puppeteers in Japan, in which a practitioner dedicates up to ten years at a time learning the precise movements of the feet, the left and right hands, the heads of secondary characters, before then transferring this skill over to the movements of the head of a main puppet.
What links these two diverse Chinese/Japanese practices is the specific emphasis placed upon the minutiae of the gestural application itself, along with the repetition of this gesture over an extended period of time, rather than concerning oneself with the apparent legibility of the action in and of itself. This focusing on the “energy in motion” generated by this alliterated gesture, rather than the repeated appearance of the words – which, in a more contemporary sense, would rather align the act of continually re-inscribing words across a surface with a popular school room punishment, as seen in a work such as John Baldessari’s I Will Not Make Any More Boring Art(1971) – thereby aligns the gestures deployed within Köpsel’s work with an act of erasure, as opposed to explication. To this end, rather than Baldessari, the early actions of Bruce Nauman are more analogous to Köpsel’s form of repetition-as-erasure. For example, in an article linking Nauman’s recurrent actions and the literary devices deployed by Samuel Beckett, Geraldine Sfez makes the following observations: “This could be a lesson learnt from Samuel Beckett; commenting on the subject of repetition in Beckett’s plays, Deleuze notes that the repetition of gestures leads to a form of automation and lack of meaning […] as it dissolves our relation to time, implies something like a suspension of time, a blocked memory, a waiting in vain”. As Sfez goes on to elucidate, the repetitive act of Nauman and the reiterated word/phrase of Beckett in effect block the linear evolution of things in time by creating a loop of events which does not lead to a succession of something else; resulting in a complete absence of meaning. Similarly, stripped of their usual meaning, the duplicated and overwritten words and letters within Köspel’s works also produces something independent of linguistic clarity; liberating the calligraphic gesture so as to form new meanings and new ways of perceiving reality.
Another important predecessor within this form of calligraphically-informed mark-making is the work of Mark Tobey. Tobey befriended the Chinese émigré Teng Baiye while both were studying art at the University of Washington in Seattle in the early 1920s and, inspired by the penmanship displayed by Teng, later travelled to China and Japan, where he spent time in a Zen monastery and was exposed to sumi ink and calligraphy. Tobey would famously go on to describe East Asia as the place where he got his “calligraphic impulse” and also his desire to paint “the frenetic rhythms of the modern city, the interweaving of lights and streams of people who are entangled in the meshes of this net”. Of course, this interest of modern and contemporary Euro-American artists in East Asian calligraphy was not hardly unique the likes of Tobey; for Western artists such as Isamu Noguchi and André Masson, calligraphy represented an utterly modern means of expanding an abstract idiom, independent of linguistic signification. Although many critics during the immediate postwar period dismissed this joining of Eastern and Western visual tropes as a means to suture the wounds caused when the United States dropped atomic bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima, for Tobey, the abstract calligraphic line was a means in which to embrace more of a universal humanity.
Naturally, this interest in the abstract potential of calligraphy is hardly confined the binary of West/East: as Iftikhar Dadi has shown, modern artists from across North Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia have all contributed to a movement that transformed aspects of Arabic calligraphy into modern art; allowing hitherto traditional forms to break free of academic limitations and thereby being revitalized within modernist paradigms. Encompassing artists as diverse as the Iranians Charles Hossein Zenderoudi, Parviz Tanavoli and Siah Armajani, the Iraqi artist Shakir Hassan Al Sa’id, Hanif Ramay, Sadequain Naqqash and Anwar Jalal Shemza from Pakistan, as well as the artists from Sudan (Ibrahim El Salahi and Ahmed Shibrain), Egypt (Ramsès Younan), and even Turkey (Erol Akyavaş), Dadi demonstrated how these differing approaches to calligraphic abstraction allowed for artists to reengage with the abstract and expressive possibilities of the Arabic script, thereby imbuing it with figuration and abstraction to a degree that resisted a straightforward literal or narrative meaning. Despite holding vastly contrasting personal histories and approaches to art-making, what connects all of these disparate practices is the manner in which each artist was able to experiment with the abstract properties of calligraphic expression: using it, in a manner to the works on display here, to constructs a fantastical realm of abstract spaces and gestural ambiguities, and to synthesize Western gestural abstraction with the older traditions and representational practices.
Thinking through this, one can draw parallels between the furious transcriptions of Köpsel’s Göttliche Komödie series and Siah Armajani’s use of the works of thirteenth- and fourteenth- century Sufi scribes and poets across the vast surfaces of his early works; with both acts rendering the texts themselves almost illegible, even to those who can read its language. At the heart of both artists’ work is a complicated form of piety: while this may be alluded to in their titles, the religious act is actually embodied in the very execution of the works, which echoes the repetitive, meditative, and even ascetic practices of devotion. For although the calligraphic mark is still the primary characteristic of all of these works, its loose, sketchy rendering against unadorned or radically altered backgrounds foregrounds a dedication to visual effect over strict legibility. Across all of Köpsel’s works, the script unfolds in multiple directions at once – either following the abstract curvature of national borders, or delimiting the perimeter of decorative abstractions – deliberately disconcerting the viewer and guiding their eye in all directions at once. This in turn prompts an emotional, rather than rational/detached, engagement to the work, as the viewer’s gaze is constantly gliding, swooping, and stopping throughout their engagement with the work. This is especially evident in the dispersion of lines of text across the spherical surfaces of the globes: for although the strict linguistic quality of the word itself is utterly illegible, the marks themselves nonetheless prompt one to follow the curvature of both their application and of the surface itself; maintaining thier aesthetic potency via the bands and fields of abstract colour that similarly sweep across the surface.
Importantly, given that all of Köpsel’s works do not simply indicate textuality or forms of letters and words – but poetry itself – the works could be accused as anti-modernist: by incorporating literature and the “literary” within an abstract painterly mode, they violate one of the established norms of modernist abstraction, namely that it be entirely free of literary narrative and content. However, such an assumption disregards the fact that all of the work actually does represent an ideal modernist mode, given its defiance of formal calligraphic decoration, and the manner in which it renders in casual writing verses that would have been hitherto reproduced in painstakingly legible hand-printing. The work thus restores the literary, diminishes the decorative, and elevates the spiritual, and in so doing, becomes highly provocative.
1 Original: “sheer life experienced through energy in motion that is registered as traces [...] with time and rhythm in shifting space its main ingredients”