Silvie Aigner'

THOMAS RIESS - in the interstices of existence

the unambiguous topic in the works of thomas riess is the human being. or is it? even a term such as “painting” seems too limited, as one realizes that a definite positioning of the artist cannot be achieved in this manner and that a topic such as ‘figure’ or ‘human being’ does not encompass everything that is transported via his paintings. the very fact that the artist concerns himself so vehemently with deep-sea divers and astronauts already suggests that the spectator is called upon to leave known territory and embark on a journey into the difficult relationship between perception, reality, and the interpretation of the latter. the challenge of translating this relation into a new reality, that of the image, is inherent to artistic production and hence also inevitable for thomas riess. but even when he can identify the interstices of existence for himself, he is consequently confronted with the challenge of making them visible for his spectators as well. in the end and despite all diversions such as the motif, the conceptual idea or the confrontation with the material itself,  his work leads him back to the question of individual existence and challenges him to explore his own frontiers and, if necessary, to cross them. a general thesis arises from this personal challenge, leading us back to the following question: can art depict the philosophical thoughts of the artist or at least a part of them, and what do deep-sea divers or astronauts, wave riders or spacesurfers represent in these thoughts? something puzzling and mysterious is attached to these pictures. one expects something to happen, something strange, amazing, symbolical. a significant indication, something like a vision, something that hints at a truth, but leaves one guessing as to which.

the space his protagonists move in is mostly black or white. an endless space in the infinite reaches of the cosmos. it is 2010 according to our spaceship’s log… conjuring up associations with images, through which space was beamed into our living rooms decades ago via low-budget productions. the chain of association is admissible, as the deliberations of thomas riess touch upon the 1974 science-fiction parody dark star by john carpenter. dark star is a spaceship that has been traveling through space for twenty years, looking for unstable planets. the movie, whose catastrophic end, triggered by the causal connection of various events, is already foreshadowed from the start, does not only narrate the crew’s complete numbness and communicational ineptitude, but also the dialogue with the ultimately exploding bomb 20. despite a sequence of erroneous orders, the bomb is at first and thanks to the persuasive skills of a computer still willing to return to its bay. however, the film eventually culminates in the live bomb’s instruction about phenomenology by the astronaut doolittle, who even climbs out of the spaceship to do so – unfortunately, only a supposed exit strategy out of the catastrophe. it is at this intersection that riess applies his deliberations – not to the explosion – but to the dialogue about the phenomenon of reality, which makes the artist’s liking for diving goggles, hard hats, diving bells and astronauts’ helmets more explicable.

the protagonists of his paintings move within another system. they are set adrift in a space in which they cannot survive without protective clothing. communication with the outside world is possible, but only with the help of technology. but can one still be certain of the reality of the information one receives in the absence of any direct contact? which pieces of information does one accept, which reject? doolittle, too, tries to make the bomb understand that it collects all the information about the outside world only via sensors and thus cannot be sure to receive an authentic image of actual reality.

phenomenology as a term for the realization as conception in contrast to the thing per se, as kant used this term in the context of natural philosophy, or as a theory of phenomena, respectively. however, this also implies that the error (the appearance) must be discovered in order to get to the truth, but also that the appearance becomes subjective reality at times. this is how we often refer to the world we know. what we do not know, simply cannot be, as plato already demonstrated with his allegory of the cave. but is the empty space in the paintings of thomas riess that “terra incognita,” which has yet to be peopled by figures, or is it rather the case that the astronaut or the diver represents a reality in its own right, a completely self-sufficient system, connected to tubes that supply everything essential to life? even bomb 20 eventually concluded that nothing existed apart from itself and thus begins to narrate its own version of genesis. the more one is immersed in the story told by the paintings of thomas riess, the more inevitable the confrontation with what is commonly referred to as life becomes. how far does the protective covering of the individual reach? what do we recognize as the truth and how far does our imagination go, which enables us to realize the other, the alien beyond ourselves? this is one of the topics at the basis of thomas riess’s conceptual deliberations, just as being thrown back on the natural function of respiration. we are only made aware of this if the automatism is tilted, in a world that is not made for human existence, but which we invade nevertheless, trying to move within its confines. the protective clothing becomes an armor, a second skin, that separates us from the outside. the metaphors are evident, but not always comfortable, as thomas riess simultaneously holds the mirror up to our faces. maybe the answer simply is to let go, like doolittle, who, upon having realized the hopelessness of the situation, goes for a final surf across the planets. the “silver surfer” also was the symbol of total freedom in a boundless world in jim mcbride’s film breathless, a pop-remake of jean-luc godard’s production of the same name. but thomas riess shows us that we cannot reach this boundless world without helmets or protective clothing. yet, on the other hand: who never leaves this protective environment will ultimately never see and experience anything beyond the immediate surroundings. and yet thomas riess does not even depict the environment of his protagonists most of the time. only in some paintings does he locate the divers in a lake or a pool. but on these large-sized canvases, water or air only appears in our associations because, on a purely formal level, it is a monochrome surface on which the artist places his figures. these are applied via a tape dispenser. the starting point is either discovered or self-made photographic material which serves the artist as a medial archive providing a fresh impetus. the application by means of an always identical work process appears like condensation on the one and dissolution on the other hand, which does not pose a contradiction. the slow work process brings about a long-lasting occupation with the image. the manifold thoughts, the possible road system that arise given the primed canvas need to be concretized and concentrated.
on the other hand, the closed figure of the medial starting image is dissolved – similar to computer pixels, the figure in the final image of thomas riess consists of individual pieces of tape that are more or less closely placed next to each other and which, upon close inspection, create an abstract color-surface and reveal the motif only in the overall view. the correction tape roller is interconnected as a transmitter with the painter’s individual flow. what is typical of similar series is the renouncement of color. the reduction to black and white heightens the presence of the materiality and at the same time lends something graphic to these works, although they are hardly comparable to the medium of drawings in its classical meaning.

even if one can see what is being depicted, the irritation remains. especially since the theme is so consistently applied, the spectator soon realizes that this cannot be an arbitrary motif. connections are looked for, contents are interpreted. this situation of perceptional insecurity is also exploited by thomas riess in his video. it not only turns the eventually discernible item on its head, but also makes use of the wax helmet’s melting process to form the thing in the video. this procedure seems to be conducted as if by an invisible hand. the parts are formed in a fascinatingly aesthetic manner, they bend and melt, and slowly turn into a helmet. the wax, so the video makes us believe, is delivered from an invisible source, accompanied by the breathing sounds of a diver under water. everything is perfectly staged, it is unclear until the very end how the process will conclude.

in this manner, spectators experience the works of thomas riess as answer and question alike. maybe markus lüpertz was right when he said that a work of art only begins to exist in the mind of the person who sees it, that it is only via the spectator’s statement that the image receives a proper name that is polyphonic and never unambiguous. in the end and according to lüpertz, works of art are a “paradoxical swing.” theodor w. adorno also reflected upon art’s enigmatic character in his aesthetic theory: “riddles and works of art share the ambiguity of the definite and the indefinite. they are question marks, unambiguous not even through synthesis. still, their figure is so exact that it prescribes the transition to the location where the work itself abruptly ends. like in riddles the answer is kept a secret and compelled by structure. the work’s purpose is the definition of the indefinite.” maybe it really is as nietzsche assumed, i.e. that art helps the human being to become aware of the totality of existence. it definitely is a means for a sensitive approach to the hardly graspable interstices of existence.

Silvie Aigner (Curator and Editor-in-Chief Parnass Art Magazine)

works cited:
friedrich nietzsche, nachgelassene fragmente 1884-1885, ditzingen, 1995
markus lüpertz, der kunst die regeln geben. ein gespräch mit heinrich hell, zürich 2005
theodor w. adorno, ästhetische theorie, gesammelte schriften, frankfurt am main 1990