Bodo Buhl’s first major works date back to the 80’s and echo perfectly the particular wildeness characteristics of the period. The series of portraits “Wir alle wollen nur das Beste” (“All we want is the best”) is the dispassionate expression of the then new cult of “the businessman” as the embodiment of a new type of human being whose salient characteristics (a culture based on a cynical view of financial interests, social Darwinism and measured aggression) make him a rewrite of the “warlike” archetype of the warrior. His “weapons” are the real time calculation of profit and the ability to see human relationships in their “final reality”, the only depth psychology which really counts, in other words, the conflict of interests to which those relationships lead back, and the consequent ability to know how to react in the strategically most appropriate way within highly specialist battle fields: the real estate sector, the financial market etc. In Buhl’s work, the fact that the businessman becomes a pictorial “type”, even though photography is the medium used, that the businessmen comes to belong to that idealized series of portraits of people who represent not just themselves but also an entire social class, is demonstrated by the repetitive nature of poses, by the “uniform! Of the social group to which he belongs (the dark suit, the light shirt, the tie), by the complex expressiveness of the faces which reflect a combination of respectability, reliability and a tone of polite menace. A sort of canon of postmodern sociological portrait painting is thus established characterised by the repetition of a small number of elements, a sort of minimalist grammar of gestures, gazes, clothes. And so these portraits provide us with an insight into Buhl’s way of working. In order for the “type” to emerge, a number of characteristic traits must be isolated and repeated so that they become common traits, convincingly establishing the portrait of “the businessman”.
In the same way, again at the beginning of the 80’s Buhl worked towards other aspects of a mannered post-modernism, isolating elements with an architectural flavor – such as a transparent pink Plexiglas and white lacquered column surmounted by the word “Flamingo” – or selecting images taken directly from advertising. These works form an extensive photographic series entitled “Oasis of Life” (1992). If the world during this last decade stands out for its “Wir alle wollen nur das Beste”, whose depth psychology consists of the ability to read the immutable manifestation of conflict of interest into various different types of behavior, and “Oasis of Life”, selections of images from different origins, a model collection of that which represents “das Beste” in terms of power and success, art, to avoid re-living the attitude of the 80’s can no longer take up ideologically critical positions. Instead, that world must be taken literally, only magnifying its outward appearances by selection, isolation, repetition. In other words, a surface psychology must be produced artistically. The world of “Oasis of Life” is not just attractive, it is very attractive, the beauty and perfection of an existence made possible by the consummate game of personal interest – it can be opposed by no other possible model of existence. One must instead work towards an “Über-Ästhetisierung” of that world.
The world of advertising is characterised by a constant process of emphasis, of attracting the attention. In the advertising world, in order to be seen and observed, the product must be constantly “exposed”, made to stand out, put on display. These processes of selection, accentuation and display are not however at all foreign to art, quite the opposite. In the pre-advertising world, it was art itself which displayed its subjects, thus attracting the attention of the observer. All the mechanisms of advertising do is make use of processes which are already contained within art, but – and here lies the fundamental difference – they do it with a view to ends which are external to the image on display: to market and sell. In other words, they provide a vehicle for a message which is not exhausted by that image or in those words.
For example, the “Oasis of Life” series of works includes a photograph depicting a square citrus fruit. The image, taken from the advertising of an Israeli bank, is a play on the multiple meanings of the word “square”, not just in the sense “to make square”, but also to “reconcile”, “harmonise”, “balance the books” (the phrase “we make things square” can be understood as “we resolve any situation, we sort things out”). And here the paradoxical image of a square citrus fruit is used by a bank as a vehicle for communicating the idea that it will always be able to find solutions, to sort things out, to balance the books, even in the most difficult of situations. Buhl’s contribution is limited to removing this image from its original context, thus elevating to the second power the action of selection and display already started by the advertising itself. Art responds to the process of making the advertising attractive, of rendering the message as pleasant as possible, by making it even more attractive, to be more precise, a process of Über-Ästhetisierung” whose essential role is to abstract the image from the scope of advertising (the conciliatory and reassuring message of the bank), thereby freeing the image itself into a suspension without function. That which art now shows us has no longer any connection with the commercial objectives of the image, but only with its pure aesthetic appearance, liberated from any outside restraint. “Ohne Zweck” – without purpose – as Kant would say. The “Über-Ästhetisierung” Buhl achieves by abstracting the image away from every outside reference gives back that image to the enigma of its superficiality.
The two photographic series quoted must not however give a false impression of Buhl’s work which is essentially sculptural. But, as rightly emphasized by Justin Hoffman’s text appearing in the catalogue prepared for the Neue Galerie exhibition in Dachau (March 1995), Buhl’s work is characterised by precisely that unusual relationship between photograph and sculpture. Taken as a whole, Buhl’s photograph work is always considered in connection with sculptural elements. As if photograph and sculpture inclined towards each other, calling out to one another. The fact that in Buhl’s photographs one is aware of a strong plastic quality is no accident. The image tension that emerges from the surfaces through the tight contrast of black and white is basically coherent with those procedures of selection and isolation from the context, of abstraction with respect to the objective for which that same image was originally designed. Almost as though to emphasise in plastic form the separation and isolation of the image with respect to the image itself, always “taken from”. Last but not least, the photographs can be thought of as having a certain monumental characteristic, sometimes achieving considerable sizes, so that not only does the subject photographed have a plastic value, but the photographic object in all its aspects (glass, passe-partout, frame) also has a significant “physical” presence in space.
All the images used by Bodo Buhl are images which have already been reproduced and this is obvious from the fact that the photographic screen is always clearly visible. They are images that have therefore in some way “already been seen”, whose subjects have not been directly created by the artist, but only selected. For Buhl, it is as though the repertoire of possible images had already been completed. All that remains for the artist to do is to select and re-sort them from time to time. The world of life, that which is commonly meant by the term “reality”, has no interest for Buhl, whose work always takes as its starting point a “second” world of already taken images. Looking at Buhl’s sculptures, one has the same sensation of “already seen”, almost as though one had viewed similar structures before. There are many possible references, some suggested by the artist himself, from allusions to compositions with a cubist flavor (indeed, “Le tableau cubist” was the title of a work displayed at the Munich Kunstforum in 1988), to a certain futurism-constructivism (“Zero” and “Beryll”, the latter displayed at Trieste in 1990), an overall minimalist sensitivity in reducing everything to a few and extremely simple primary forms.
A characteristic feature of all the sculptural works is their highly refined, extremely precise appearance, as if the “Über-Ästhetisierung” had actually to take physical shape in the perfection of form and surface. The most explicit aspect of Buhl’s attention to the skin of the work lies in his constant use of lacquer. Often the surface of Buhl’s sculpture, always radiating an atmosphere of utter faultlessness, is treated with glossy lacquer which puts the work in the same class of perfection as certain objects produced by highly selective industrial and design processes – with, however, the suspension of any possible and further sense which could be called upon to explain this deliberate perfection and flawlessness (with respect to the designed object, the complete lack of any reason for being which could lead back to any sort of functionality). So once again we encounter that surface psychology which appears to be a distinguishing characteristic of the German artist’s poetics. The lacquering of the sculpture, particularly if highly polished, produces surface effects of reflection and specularity which cause the three-dimensionality of the object to contract to the two-dimensionality of the image. The specularity of the surface tends to reduce the volumetrics of the sculpture. The particular relationship between photography and sculpture in Buhl’s work, their combined presence, can perhaps be better understood if, alongside the previously mentioned plasticity and monumentality of his photography, one puts the two-dimensional inflexion of his sculpture, made possible by their surface treatment (for example in “Ophelissem”, 1988 and “L’Essence”, 1990). It is almost as though photography and sculpture come together in a spatial dimension halfway between the two-dimensional and the three-dimensional.
Buhl’s sculptures are in no way expressive. They are rather conceived as a reaction to the dissolution of artistic shape typical of much art, particularly German art, in the 80’s. this reaction is a conscious one, as declared during an interview in 1992, in which the Munich artist made clear his detachment from the expressionism, vitality and disorder of art during that period. If one artist could be described as being at the opposite pole to Buhl, this is without doubt Josef Beuys. The results of this reaction and separation from the vitalistic-expressive aspects are translated into a coherent return to the perfection of the work whose ultra-perfect character is as far away as possible from the pathos of “open form” work or work in progress. It has nothing to do with receiving messages, entreaties, social designs contained in the artistic work. Just as the possibility of heteronomously interpreting the image, as is the case with advertising, is completely denied, so the work of art and its processes contain nothing which can serve as a model or indicate hypotheses which in any way refer to a social message. In this sense Buhl’s sculpture does not communicate anything, it limits itself to exhibiting its flawless perfection. It is located on the side of the inexpressive and neutral which puts art into the same category as the indifference and perfection of a nature very foreign to that of man: that of minerals.
In the text of the catalogue accompanying “Le Tableau Cubiste”, Peter Klaus Schuster imagined a sort of mini-gallery which could sum up the essential motifs to which Buhl’s sculpture refers. The images include: two of Picasso’s works/objexcts from 1913, a sketch by Nadar (1853), a cigarette advertisement (The Art of Smoking, 1988), a page taken from “Geometry and Perspective” by Lorenz Storer (1556) and an illustration “Archtictural Crystallisation” taken from Grandville (1844). A heterogeneous but not incoherent gallery, swinging, as is always the case with Buhl, between the elegant kitsch of contemporary advertising and references which belong more to the 20th century artistic experience. But perhaps the most convincing body of possible references is represented by the old book of perspective studies with its particular combination of precision and imaginative ability on the brink of the surreal and the relationship, also surreal, between architectural structures and their mineral origin contained in the Grandville’s illustration. It is through these last two references that one can perhaps best approach the innermost nucleus of Buhl’s artistic conception. His sculpture has something in common with the perfection of the geological matrix, with a compositional order which is as unemotional and inexpressive as it is subtly enigmatic. Above all this sensation is transmitted by his extremely precise sculpture, far removed from the sketchy or transient, and his latest works in Plexiglas, aluminium and plastic whose small dimensions are not designed with a view to being enlarged, but which instead give the objects as a whole their self-sufficiency. This sensation is also partly due to the particular way the works are displayed, on pedestals of lacquered wood in Plexiglas cases, a method which accentuates the precious nature of objects “under glass”, almost as though they were jewels or decorative objects in new materials. Or perhaps toys. And in this sense the ideal gallery through which to approach Buhl’s works should also include some images by Alberto Savinio, where the object-toys abandoned at the end of the sea or in a clearing are a landscape of distant childhood.
Both the minerals and the abandoned toys essentially talk of time and its suspension – the first of the external perfection generated by the Earth, the second as symbols of a past existence in which, with Heraclitus, time was still a child intent on playing on the beach. Aion, this is the time-child of the pre-Socratic philosopher, time which has nothing in common with the time of our daily experience and existence, being, with respect to our usual temporal condition, the paradoxical time which does not pass, like that of the child unmindful of the world and completely absorbed in his game. Time-not time, which we can think of, exactly as we think of childhood, as always in the past. Abandoned toys left behind by the child are for Savinio one of the ways through which to bear witness to that time. Just as the enigmatic and always fascinating ruins of a now deserted building can provide us with evidence of the life that went on inside it, so the toys are also traces of a splendour, that of childhood which still survives in the beauty of the colours of the drifting objects, left at the edge of our everyday time. Their beauty is as useless as their perfection, because it belongs to a time from which we are separated for ever, almost as though a transparent yet solid surface had come between them and us.
In the same way as with the toys, minerals are examples of a nature which does not change, indifferent to the cycle of the seasons, cycles by which we can recognize a rhythm of time in which we are involved. The completeness of the crystals speaks not of the time of the seasons, in other words natural time which changes and is similar to ours, but rather of its suspension: geological immutability which knows no decline or weakness. The concept expressed in Bodo Buhl’s work, its precision and perfection has something of that suspended temporality between toy and mineral.
From Paul Claudel: “The mystic of precious stones”
“…this constant refinement of the crystals… this eternity which is the product of that endeavor, this reaching of the essential, this internal fruit obtained by the compression of a world, this pureness equal to that which spreads through the ether acquired by the planetary pearl by meditating on its own substance! There are two types of geological process: one which is the process of disintegration: for example, granite which becomes clay. The other – and it is like the philosopher who, by mixing and re-mixing a multitude of facts, arrives at the concept, the abstract jewel of an unarguable definition, is a sort of natural creation or birth, something to attain which escapes decomposition because of its simplicity”.*