Before The Flight
It was the 1994 exhibition Rendez-vous provoqué at the National Museum of History and Art (MNHA) in Luxembourg that first brought Bert Theis to the wider public’s attention (1). He had chosen a modest space to exhibit a series of works that – as I came to understand much later – concluded his long-standing argument (in the philosophical sense of the word) with painting. With a single stroke of a brush dipped in white paint, he traced a line on a white wall. Next to the can of paint, the brush and the pages of the De Handelsblad newspaper with which he had covered the floor, he added the epitaph ‘Ja Vincent, het is mogelijk’ [Yes Vincent, it is possible] in capital letters. By doing so, he assumed the role of Theo answering his brother’s question as to whether it would one day be possible to paint white-on-white, something that the history of painting has confirmed repeatedly since. Gone before his time, Vincent did not live long enough to find out for himself, but he can now rest in peace thanks to this small monument dedicated to him in Theis’ exhibition, which was also shown in the Netherlands, the birthplace of the famous Van Gogh brothers.
A light box with an inscription in Braille was suspended on another wall. The inherent contradiction of the piece was obvious: illuminating a writing system devised for the blind is of no use, neither to them nor to the sighted. Once deciphered, the inscription turned out to be a quote from Wittgenstein – ‘That which is hidden does not interest us’ – which further widened the conceptual abyss opened up by the work. It seemed a lot like a commentary on the condition of contemporary painting, which Theis felt was rather hopeless (2).
Finally, a book titled L’Art de la peinture [The Art of Painting] lay on top of a plinth unreadable after Theis had glued its pages together one by one to make its content inaccessible, possibly because there was nothing more to be drawn from it. This sculpture, which subtly evoked a funerary monument, suggested that painting was well and truly dead (3).
I first met Theis in September of the previous year, at a group exhibition at the Konschthaus Beim Engel in which he had taken part (4). The visual quality of his work, as well as his observations on the art world and aesthetic conventions, had impressed me. I also liked his humour, although it took me a while to understand that he used it as a real intellectual tool, a plough with which he tilled the fields of his thought, not unlike Marcel Duchamp. In the biographical text he published on this occasion he mentioned his first painting teachers, Anna Recker and Roger Bertemes (to whom he added Max Ernst, a spiritual father in his early days), and his studies at the Istituto statale d’arte di Urbino from 1981 to 1983. He also mentioned his doubts about the existence of God (and, vice versa, God’s questioning of the existence of Theis) since the age of 12, about the existence of socialism since 1968 and doubts he had harboured regarding painting since 1986, as well as his ‘meditations’ on Duchamp’s silence. This exhibition already demonstrated his attention to issues that would characterise his later work, among others his series of Schwéier Biller [Heavy Paintings] (1993), which poked fun at the penchant of Luxembourg art buyers to look for deepermeaning inside the frames hanging above their sofas.
Up until that point, Theis had been known primarily for his political activism. At secondary school, from the age of 16, he took part in debates aimed at stirring up a section of Luxembourg’s youth following the upheavals in France in the Spring of 1968 and he campaigned against the obsolete rigidity of the school system (5). Later, he joined the Revolutionary Communist League (LCR), producing several posters for marches in favour of equality and against war. This is when he presumably attracted the lasting animosity of a section of Luxembourg society that saw members of Trotskyist movements as enemies of the State and did not hesitate to put them under secret service surveillance (6). The desire to be involved in the advent of a more equitable society never left him, no matter where he went. In 1982, as an art student in Urbino, he designed the poster for the city’s Peace Committee and until his final days he supported the laid-off workers of automotive supplier Maflow, who came together to self-govern in disused factories in the industrial suburbs of Milan in complete defiance of the neoliberal steamroller (7).
In the 1980s Theis produced drawings, engravings, lithographs and collages oscillating between melancholic oneirism and Baroque-tinged surrealism, as demonstrated by his illustrations for Gollo Steffen’s poetry collection Dat lest (1981) and his series of Chaocollages. These potently structured and ironic early works, so removed from the lyrical and vaguely expressionistic abstraction that dominated the local scene at that time, were revealed to the public in solo exhibitions at Nick-Nack gallery in Ettelbrück, Art Gallery in Luxembourg as well as the Galerie Terres Rouges and Schluechthaus venue in Esch-sur-Alzette.
This artistic freedom, which Theis nurtured conscientiously, didn’t just fall from the sky. A seasoned reader of Marxist social theories, he knew that an artist who has to live from his work will almost inevitably end up becoming a slave of the market. So while he devoted his life to art, he earned his living working as a teacher. Throughout their lives, Theis and his life companion Mariette Schiltz made sure to separate their day jobs from their artistic work in order to guarantee the independence of the latter, even if this meant renouncing many aspects of consumer society (aspects that didn’t fulfil them much anyway). It was only aged 40 that Theis finally gave up his teaching post in Luxembourg and settled in Milan in order to, among other things, teach at the Nuova Accademia di Belle Arti (NABA).
His last paintings date from this time. When he realized he was heading into an impasse, he eventually immolated them during a performance documented by three Polaroid photographs, which he planned one day to assemble into a composition. Clearly, the idea of an object expressing an individual feeling unrelated to a given context and with no social usefulness could no longer satisfy him – it merely fed the suicidal spectacle of the capitalist world in which he refused to take part. This is how I make sense of the patient pedagogy with which he spoke about his work from our very first encounter: to produce art means to share something with others, to liberate oneself together rather than try to impress by means of questionable concepts such as originality, whose sole purpose is distinction and exclusion. This is also the reason why Theis’ subsequent work focused on situations, performances and works that could be used in the public realm and that emphasised the viewer’s active presence and critical reflection.
Although the Shadow Fixing series (created between 1992 and 1995) attests to his research into going beyond the object, today I also see it as an ultimate confrontation with the limitations of painting. By applying black powder on the shadows cast by various objects at specific times of the day – a stone on the site of the Minoan palace at Knossos or a lamppost in the suburbs of Milan – Theis conjured up the original myth of painting as told by Plato, all the while putting his inability to capture the real moment on display as the shadow inevitably moved before it could be fully drawn. It is no coincidence that Theis documented these actions by means of photographs that show the gap between the fixed and the moving shadow, nor that he considered the picture of the lamppost at night to be emblematic of this quest. Indeed, the visual paradox of a light source illuminating the outlines of its own shadow resonated conceptually with the light box project that he was working on at the same time. The series ended on a high note in 1995, when, as part of the so-called ‘year of culture’ (8), he conceived a precisely timed ballet-like performance in which he captured the shadow of a tower in Fort Thüngen. Although largely derelict, the remains of this historic fortification had become a pretext for endless controversies that delayed and led to considerable changes in the plans for a museum of contemporary art to be built on this site (9). Theis chose his areas of intervention with great care, merging history and context with personal experience to reveal subtle connections and powerful ideas, always making sure to confer a refined beauty on each detail and gesture.
With few resources, he managed to transform people’s perception of places, including those that seemed unsuitable for the presentation of artworks. When invited to exhibit at the Centre Culturel Français in Luxembourg, which was housed on the first floor of an office building, he devised an evocative installation or ‘public operation’ titled Désenchantement virtuel [Virtual Disenchantment] (1994) that consisted of a ladder, a bunch of stacked cubes and a ball. With these few elements he evoked Albrecht Dürer’s famous Melencolia I (1514), submitting the magic square that appears in the historic engraving ‘to the Sélavy method test using a computer’ (10). Perpetuating the efforts of the Renaissance to found painting on reason, mathematics and the imitation of nature, Theis incorporated new technologies and Duchamp’s contribution in an ultimate attempt to keep it alive.
Theis gave striking proof of his ability to transform places by magnifying their context when he was invited to represent Luxembourg at the Venice Biennale in 1995. Nevertheless, the adventure began badly. For sure the thought of being the flag-bearer for a country was not to his liking, but to make matters worse, the exhibition space usually allotted to the Grand Duchy, and situated in a wing of the central pavilion in the Giardini, was particularly unattractive. He nevertheless agreed, determined to make the best of the situation. But even before he was able to travel to Venice, he learned that the Biennale’s head curator, Jean Clair, had demanded that all available space in the Giardini be reserved for his own exhibition presentation. Countries without a proper national pavilion had to rent a space in town if they wanted to take part – a mountain too high to climb for Luxembourg in light of its budget back then. Theis began to explore the Giardini and eventually found a scrubby, inaccessible corner, at the bottom of which stood a cabin that was used as a changing room and toilets by the exhibition attendants. He had the idea of somehow turning this unappealing spot into a little paradise for visitors, if you will.
Potemkin Lock (1995) saw the light of day after a long diplomatic battle involving the head curator, the Biennale and City of Venice authorities and the Belgian and Dutch ministries of culture, who were direct neighbours with this temporary Luxembourg pavilion (11) Visitors entered the small patch of green fenced off by a tall white wall after walking through a corridor in which a rap by Duchamp, pieced together from fragments of phrases taken from a 1960s interview and integrated into a musical composition by Raphaël Rippinger, was playing. The work-as-pavilion was an immediate public success and in just a few days it became the favourite of much of the press, the art professionals and the public. Kaspar Koenig, who was a member of the jury that year, believed it deserved to be awarded the Golden Lion (12).
More importantly, Potemkin Lock brought to life some of the recurring concerns present in Theis’ work since the beginning of his artistic career, while introducing a fundamental element that can be found in all his subsequent work, namely, the definition of a place as being able to draw attention to the individuals in it, allowing them to elevate themselves (both literally and metaphorically) and enabling them to be both observers and observed. When fully taken on and experienced consciously, this double presence is, for me, the most precious gift of art to mankind. The fact that this place can be a simple movable bench in a museum (drifters) (2006) or a permanent installation (Spirale Warburg on Place de la République in Strasbourg or The True Artist Never Tells the Truth at the MNHA, for example) shows the strength and generosity of this vision, which Theis was able to bring to life wherever he worked. And he often did so with characteristically corrosive humour. When he was finishing the white paint job on the fence a few days before the inauguration of the Biennale, he was asked by a journalist what he was up to. He replied: ‘I’m probably making the biggest monochrome painting [in square metres] ever created for the Biennale, just to please Vincent van Gogh.’
The popularity of Potemkin Lock also had unexpected and important consequences back in Luxembourg. Enthused by its success, the Minister of Culture Erna Hennicot-Schoepges agreed to a project for a contemporary art venue submitted to her shortly afterwards and in March 1996 the Casino Luxembourg – Forum d’art contemporain was inaugurated. As soon as the fledgling institution, which was housed in a historic building dating from 1886, opened however, it suffered from a lack of quiet relaxation areas. Theis proposed using half of the Aquarium – the moniker given to the steel-and-glass extension built in 1956 after plans by Jean Prouvé designed to enlarge the main building – for this purpose. His Domaine de Marcel and Joseph (1997-2000) made the best use of the Aquarium’s pavilion-like modernist architecture and its relationship with the urban environment. The tropical plants, deckchairs and rattan furniture, but also the original soundtrack and the white paint that coated everything, invited visitors to indulge in a change of scenery and relax and it encouraged contemplation and reflection on the exhibitions on display. The installation unfolded around an aviary where two mynahs were expected to converse using quotes by Marcel Duchamp and Joseph Beuys taught to them over a six-month training period – in vain, as it turned out, since the birds had their own minds as to which words they wanted to learn, prompting Theis to remark that the sounds they produced in his installation were ‘reverse readymades’ (13). The integration of animals and plants was obviously a daily challenge for the Casino’s team, but for the artist it also carried a social, human and even political dimension, as it implied the institution’s responsibility towards living beings and introduced an emotional relationship that the works usually exhibited there hardly ever generated. This complex and programmatic installation expanded the experience of Potemkin Lock while paving the way conceptually forone of his other major works during those years, the Philosophical Platform in Münster in 1997 (14).
In the meantime the invitations to participate in several exhibitions across Europe kept coming, among others, from the curators of Manifesta 2, a young itinerant biennial whose second edition, much to the surprise of the art world, was to be held in Luxembourg during the summer of 1998 (15). Theis responded to their invitation with his Independent Subcurator Project, a critique of the myriad events that merely served to ‘fuel the international art market’ (16). His work took the form of a triptych inspired by the precepts of Ciceronian rhetoric: delectare (to delight) with Le Domaine de Marcel et Joseph, which had just been inaugurated; docere (to teach) by means of a workshop for young artists aimed at ‘provoking reflection, discussion and an exchange of experiences and knowledge instead of the production of consumer goods’ (17) and movere (to move) in a ‘perfumed shuttle bus that featured a soundtrack and connected the Casino Luxembourg to the home of Karl Marx in Trier, in other words, linking ‘the city of banks to the home of the author of Das Kapital’ (18).
There is no doubt that Theis appealed to spectators’ cultivation and intelligence rather than trying to cater to the banal and stultifying taste for appearances and wealth of a good many people who gravitate in and around the art world. He always did this with a rare elegance and aesthetic refinement that stood in opposition to the visual pollution (19) flooding today’s world, something that French writer and critic Annie Le Brun has described as ‘the establishment of a new kind of servitude, if not corruption’ (20). His work broadened mental horizons and enriched the perception of those who encountered it, because it was a proposal for emancipation. By providing a beautiful and meditative response to the specific situations he was addressing (21), Theis managed to create new places full of promise without ever relying on spectacular effects. The colour white, which he used as a tool to free the eyes and elevate the mind, was a philosophy of life. I am sure Vincent van Gogh would have understood.
Enrico Lunghi (2019)
Enrico Lunghi is an art historian. He was a senior research assistant at the National Museum of History and Art in Luxembourg, from 1991 to 1995, then artistic director at the Casino Luxembourg – Forum d’art contemporain from 1996 to 2008. He was General Director of Mudam Luxembourg from 2009 to 2016. From 2005 to 2011 he was President of the International Association of Curators of Contemporary Art (IKT). Since 2017 he is a research fellow at the Ministry of National Education’s SCRIPT, Department for the Coordination of Educational and Technological Research and Innovation, and at the University of Luxembourg.
- This exhibition, which I co-curated with Wim Beeren, a former director of the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, brought together six artists from the Netherlands (Rob Birza, Marc Mulders, Rob Scholte, Gerald van der Kaap, Berend Strik and Peer Veneman) and three artists from Luxembourg (Simone Decker, Antoine Prum and Theis).
- See Theis’ interview with Anne Schmitt in d’Lëtzebuerger Land, 1 October 1993.
- The room was titled ‘3 messages limpides’ [Three Clear Messages].
- The exhibition included works by Monica Casetti, Ermanno Dosa, Robert Mancini and Bert Theis.
- Theis’ name appears on a letter written by members of a student committee and addressed to their ‘professor’ dated 13 June 1968 in which they demand the right to participate in improving ‘co-management within the school’ and establishing ‘a fruitful dialogue’ with their teachers. Two years later he was subject to disciplinary action for ‘insolence and indiscipline’, although he disputed the version of events put forward by his teacher. See letter by principal Ben Molitor to Theis’ father dated 19 November 1970 and a leaflet calling for the establishment of a ‘student front’ dated December 1970.
- See Justin Turpel, ‘15 Jahre Bespitzelung’, forum 328 (April 2013), http://www.justin-turpel.lu/fr/archives/221.
- The workers, who continued to operate under the name RiMaflow, have dedicated a room to Theis named ‘Utopia’, where they host lectures and exhibitions by young artists. See rimaflow.it/?s=bert+theis&x=0&y=0.
- Luxembourg was the European Capital of Culture in 1995.
- The construction of today’s Mudam Luxembourg was decided by the government in 1989 but it was not until 2006, after a substantial reduction in size compared to the original plans, that it opened.
- Exhibition invitation.
- For a detailed account see Enrico Lunghi, ‘Le Luxembourg à la Biennale de Venise’, in The Venice Biennale Projects, 1988-2011, exh. cat. (Luxembourg: Mudam, 2012).
- See the postcard sent to Theis by Kaspar Koenig, which is in the Mudam’s collection today.
- Theis tried to teach his mynah catchphrases such as ‘Jeder Mensch ist ein Künstler’ [Every man is an artist] or ‘Kunst ist Kapital’ [Art is capital], while I taught mine to say ‘Rrose c’est la vie’ [Rose is life] or ‘La mariée mise à nu’ [The bride stripped bare].
- See Enrico Lunghi, Plateforme philosophique, text to appear in Kulturissimo, the monthly supplement of Luxembourg daily Tageblatt, April 2019.
- Michel Majerus and Antoine Prum were the two other Luxembourg artists.
- See Bert Theis, ‘Chère Barbara, chère Maria, cher Robert’, in Manifesta 2, exh. cat. (Luxembourg: Casino Luxembourg – Forum d’art contemporain, 1998).
- Ibid. As a follow-on to this experience, Casino Luxembourg organised an annual Art Workshop in collaboration with the University of Luxembourg until 2011.
- Title of a series of five notices that appeared in the daily newspapers of countries in which Theis exhibited between 1994 and 1996.
- Annie Le Brun, Ce qui n’a pas de prix (Paris: Stock, 2018)
- He paid as much attention to detail in his smaller domestic projects (Cinq non-lieux at Résidence Chopin in Beggen and The Lunghi-Gaeng Project in Beggen, for example) as he did to his larger urban works (2551913 on the Butte du Chapeau-Rouge in Paris, for example).
Mudam Luxembourg, ed. Bert Theis. Building Philosophy – Cultivating Utopia, Milan: Mousse Publishing, 2019 (English/French)