A Natural Art Without Nature: Scherabon’s Singular Existences
The present text focuses exclusively on the singular existences created by the artist Herwig Scherabon, of which inter alia the triptych “The Earth Will Spin Yet We Won’t Be There” as well as the four-parted work “Deep Scattering Layer” form part of the present exhibition. This concentration is undertaken because it is felt that the artist’s landscape works, such as “Arson” or “An Airplane Cutting the Amazon Night Sky” afford another writing.
This difference in affordances of being-approached (or even better: to-be-approached, which expresses a call, an order, an imperative) is based upon an ontological difference detected between both kinds of existences presented in these artworks: Herwig’s landscapist artworks are wholes consistent of diverse parts, such as different trees and palms, the forest and the airplane (that steps onto the scene exclusively as a sound in “An Airplane Cutting the Amazon Night Sky”), or already-burned versus not-yet-burned, even: still-to-burn greens (“Arson”, which is remarkably excluding the monism connecting both plant-states depicted: the presently-burning). And they are parts, cut-outs, excerpts made visible of an overwhelming whole, which in both here-named cases is the Amazon rainforest.
In delineation thereto, what shall here, in a merely analogous manner, be called Herwig’s ‘objectivist’ artworks, viz. those artworks that have above been denoted as depicting ‘singular existences’, are only conglomerates that consist of diverse parts, e.g.: the blackberry-like figure, its leaves that stand out like tentacles or sensors, and the jelly that comes to cover it; or the moss and the skin of a birch that could be interpreted as forming the distinct body parts of the monstrously walking being that is the third part of “Deep Scattering Layer”. Yet they are not parts of/in a whole.
In a rather plain because merely visible manner, the ontological difference between both kinds of artworks here discerned becomes tangible by way of their engagement with their own borders. The fact that the landscapist works also are parts in a whole is conveyed by them spatially, constantly, ontologically touching (at least some of) their borders (what would in typical art-slang be named ‘the frame’), whereby they make us intuit a spatial continuation beyond themselves of what they show to us. In contrast, the singular existences created/animated by Herwig are mostly separated from their artwork-habitat’s frame by a black space. When they touch the borders of the artworks that depict them, this happens only ever in their moving, in the passing-by. It is never more than an instantaneous happening that in this manner conveys the message: I am too big for this, for that frame, for any frame. I myself am more (than this artwork will ever be able to reveal).
Henceforth, both Herwig’s landscapist and objectivist works exceed the borders of a conventional artwork (which is why immersive realities are the only truly fitting form they could take). Both of them convey an excess. Yet whereas the excess of his landscapist works is caused by, is based upon them being a knot in a further web that can only be implied (in the work) and insinuated (by the spectator), but that cannot be entirely shown in any artwork, in any look; the excess of his objectivist works is rather based upon the object’s or existence’s own being and doing. It is grounded in itself.
Now this is unusual. This is not what we are used to. Most of the existences we are familiar with are a combination of both facets of being: They are nets-of and they are knots-in. A house is a net of rooms, maybe a net of flats, a net of furniture, a net of inhabitants, a net of brick and wood and stone and plaster. And it is a knot in the daily routines of its inhabitants. It is a knot in a village/town/city. It is a knot in the architecture that is characteristic for this precise region. And so on. Referring here to a famous text of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, a wolf is a net of organs, of bodily parts. And it is a knot in a pack (see Deleuze and Guattari 2004, 35), in the forest, in the ecosystem, in the food chain. You can also think of yourself in this way: You are a net of memories, of knowledge, of body parts; of the clothes you currently wear. And you are a knot in your family, in your workplace, an inhabitant knot that becomes tinier the bigger the city you live in. Henceforth, normality is created by the twofold situation of being a situation and being embedded in a situation. But Herwig’s objectivist artworks are only nets-of, and not also knots-in. It is the knot-ness that these works are lacking. And precisely this is what makes them most striking and haunting because most difficult to approach, and probably also most characteristic for the artist, so I dare to suggest at least for the present exhibition. In the following we shall inquire further into: What made Herwig extract his existences from their usual nets? How is he able to achieve this distancing? And what does he effectuate thereby?
Herwig Scherabon’s singular existences reside in black space. They are singular existences because they reside in black space. It is the black space that separates them from any other existence that makes them ‘singular’ existences. The blackness steers our reflection onto the net-ness of these existences. In so doing, it merely stresses the self-sufficiency, which they ontologically own. It heightens the existence of these existences as singular. Being more precise, the blackness of this space simultaneously retains us from wondering and provokes many questions. It does not allow for the question whether there is something around these creatures, an environment, a situation, an embedding, a context which would explain, or an ambience as which Timothy Morton defines “nature” (see Morton 2007, 21), because all there might be is covered in, retreats into total blackness, without excuse, without exception. There is a strictness, a commitment, a devotion in this blackness: There is no society in the Whiteheadian sense, society as both, “a nexus with a social order” and as “an enduring creature” (Whitehead 1978, 34). These existences are no knots-in. In this manner, Herwig’s singular existences master the paradox of being natural art without nature. In this sense, the black space is a “No.” A “You won’t see anything.” It is a foreclosing of an attempt. At the same time however, regarding the completion of the existences’ own being, hence regarding their net-ness, the blackness of the space in which these existences reside provokes many questions, as it enables them to engage in a play of hiding/revealing facets of themselves, a play in which their revelations ‘to us’ and ‘to the light’ become tantamount. In this sense, the black space is a “Maybe.” It is a provocation, an invitation, a “Dare to wonder!”, “Come on, start to insinuate!”
Only because of being surrounded by blackness can these existences play tricks to us, because it is due to this blackness that we are unable to directly grasp all the knots partaking within these existences-webs. As philosopher Graham Harman writes: “Things exist not in relation, but in a strange sort of vacuum from which they only partly emerge in relation” (Harman 2009, 132). What this blackness leads us to do, what we are instantaneously doing, is starting to insinuate what other knots might be engaged in these existences. What is this existence going to show us in the very next second? What is it holding back? What might be on its further left, its further right? Where is its bottom, and where is its top? Might it ever turn around completely, so that we can see its back? Or might it even entirely step into the light?
In exemplifying these questions, I am thinking of e.g. the octopus-like figure, which forms the first part of the work “Deep Scattering Layer” and of which, at the side, the artist himself confirms this animal association which forced itself upon him when stumbling across a root of a tree in the rainforest which he therefore pictured, animated, and made fleshy. The knot that we are shown next, every puzzle piece that is given to us, the path our perception takes, is determined by the singular existences themselves. It is the existences’ plan, and we are pulled into their ban. They are mapping, they are outlining, and we are following, we are tracking (for this methodological distinction see Deleuze and Guattari 2004, 14).
Yet to speak about a ‘plan’ here might be misleading, as it implies a pre-set structure of showings merely executed by the existence. This is not the case. There is hardly a structure, hardly a harmony in the movings of these existences; but as long as we look at these animations in infinite loop, no pattern reveals itself to us. Instead, these existences lead us chaotically, organically, maybe even ‘naturally’. Their leadings never become a regulated game, but forever remain ‘only’, and thus even more powerfully a non-linear, open, intuitive play. And this playfulness is so powerful because in its chaos, it increases, it heightens the obscurity of these existences, and thus crucially contributes to making us as their spectators stay. It hence is both, the blackness as their proper frame, and how chaotically they engage with this frame, with this opportunity of revealing/withdrawing, which this blackness provides them, that makes these singular existences durably capture our attention.
A lack of context always fears us. Just think of a crime movie: The first scenes are the scariest, because they do not yet allow you to make sense of the crime’s coming-about. As the movie proceeds, things will become clearer, and in the end, the crime’s scariness often decreases. Yet Herwig does not provide us with such a relief. There is no enlightenment in his art, no objectivity. Herwig’s existences reveal some knots of their net-ness us, but only if we stay with them, only in time. Yet as long and as much as we intend to worm their secrets out of them; their entirety, their ‘being’ will eventually remain concealed, ontologically hidden in the darkness that makes up their ecosystem. As their knots remain uncountable for us, these existences are open-ended, unlimited in their adding. For this reason, I claim that the blackness in which they reside is not darkness. It is not ‘the night’, because after night comes day; yet after nothingness comes … nothing. Herwig’s is an unsatisfying, and therefore tremendous art.
Again, this is not what we are used to. If we think of Herwig’s existences as extracted from nature, then we expect them to grow linearly. It is precisely the linearity of growth that we have learned to understand as naturally, that we are usually shown in botanic depictions, and that enables didactic films to create a fastening-forward of a plant’s growing process. Yet in this acceleration, the chaos of becoming gets lost. Herwig’s art speaks up against this simplification. It is what Timothy Morton calls a “close reading“ of nature, that the American philosopher continues to describe as “a kind of anti-race towards an aesthetic state of meditative calm” (Morton 2007, 12).
Herwig’s art is not about growth, and neither is it about destruction. It is a post-modern art and as such traverses dualisms, much in the manner of Deleuze and Guattari, who emblematically wrote: “dualisms are the furniture we are forever rearranging” (Deleuze and Guattari 2004, 23). Herwig’s art hence is about something in-between, something uniting both facets. It is about becoming, and becoming always proceeds circularly. In this vein, we can indeed speak about Herwig’s as a ‘botanical art’, yet this description only fits if we mean this adjective in its literal Greek sense, which queers the dividing line between flora and fauna: The ‘boton’ named a ‘grazing beast’, something in-between what we nowadays call plant and animal, between tranquillity and aggressiveness— maybe a mushroom. However, if we think of them as pictorial material, Herwig’s objectivist artworks could also be defined as the antithesis of the “Instagramable”, “Pinteresque” visual material that is circulating in and permeating our social media: Whereas the latter directly reveals itself completely, even thrusts its entire being upon our look, and in so doing instantaneously fades away; the here approached singular existences rather are recalcitrant, and thus give us a hard time in accessing them. They give us a task. They replicate themselves within our attention, and in this manner make themselves endure therein.
Even if they do not tell us (not ‘their’, which would be reductive, but) a story from beginning to end, they initiate a story-telling in us. They deduce us to speculatively complete their story, as they incite in us an urge, a desire, even a craving for knowledge and enlightenment. Yet they also directly shun away from such a hunt. They rebuke us for this desire in their message: “There is no objectivity. Don’t you ever dare to claim to have found it.” What we hence are confronted with here are non-objectivist objectivist artworks, which reveals the shortcoming of the here undertaken naming-by-analogy, and makes me retreat to the alternative of titling them ‘singular existences’.
These existences hence are openly, creatively narrative; meanwhile in those materials that make up the mainstream, that gather the most followers in the social media sphere, there is no story, no narration, no in-time. They lack all differences. But all there is, is a picture, a moment, an in-space. There are nothing but bubbles, the destiny of which it is to burst. One plop, and their momentum is over, our attention for them is gone.
Put simply, what is easy to look at, is easy for us to look away from. Yet what is hard to look at, is hard to look away from, but lulls and enthrals us. This concealment, that incites a becoming in us by means of a stumbling, a becoming-present-at-hand (Vorhandensein, see Heidegger 2006, 83-84), a shock, is what Byung-Chul Han, in reference to Theodor W. Adorno, grants the exclusive title “the aesthetic“ (see Han 2015, 36 and 39). Thus, it is not only that these existences are detached from spatial/temporal normality but they also make us disengage with, loosen our grip onto normality. The blackness makes us forfeit all reference to space/time. How big/small are these existences? We do not know. We cannot know. The blackness prevents us from knowing. There are no dimensions, because there is no space. And when there is no space, our focus is directly steered onto time as the other ontological category by means of which we are used to judge existences.
What is the speed in which these existences move? When watching Herwig’s artworks move on my computer screen, I am still able to judge their movement’s speed by means of the speed in which I as a spectator sitting in front of this screen can move, and in which the cars that pass by my window behind this screen are moving. By means of this scaffold, I deduce that Herwig’s singular existences are moving slowly but steadily (according to Morton, this deceleration of the everyday humdrum is typical for ecocentric art, see Morton 2007, 12), like something that is ‘to come’, yet something that we cannot anticipate in its coming, that we cannot bring forward. They rather move like something that is coming in its own manner that is coming on us, a future that is looming for us, maybe a destiny.
However, the here described experience of Herwig’s works is of a detached kind, and I dare to anticipate that the immersive experience of these existences, that only an exhibition such as the here promoted one is able to provide us, will make us lose, will strip our own motions off us as timely reference frames. We will not know anymore whether these existences move fast or slow, because we won’t be able to make such a judgement about our own movements. The blackness in which we both, spectator and artwork, will then meet each other, will make it difficult for us to estimate the distance between us. And we won’t be able anymore to judge whether it is us who are moving around the creature to find out more about it, or whether it is the creature that is moving in front of our eyes, because we will lose our own stand-points. We will become ‘existences’ (a term that comes from Latin “ex-sistere” and literally means “to move out of a stand“) ourselves. We will be pulled into a suction of becoming. We will receive a strange feeling of alignment to something else, an other.
These are just some agencies of blackness. The artist himself declared (in a workshop I held in cooperation with him at the University of Presov earlier this year, see Martach and Scherabon 2021) that for him, blackness is neutrality. The blackness in which he embeds his existences is to represent the neutral, initial blackness of a screen, which is just another manifestation of neutrality as the more conventional whiteness of a canvas (or for me as a writer: the blankness of a page). Yet I feel this as contradicting the activities blackness here realizes. Blackness is not neutral. It is separating, these existences from their ordinary situations, from their knot-ness, and us as existences from our static selves. As new materialist meta/physician Karen Barad writes: “There is no nothingness” (Barad throughout 2017). There is no neutrality. But “inertia […] remains an activity“ (Didier Debaise 2017, 34).
As shocking as this blackness is when taking the singular artwork into account, once we observed a variety of them, such as will be the case when walking through the exhibition, this embeddedness-in-black moves from a specific non-embeddedness to a constant (a sharing which by no way is a consoling), and hence to an ontological thesis. It shifts from being contentless to having a content, with the content being that there is no content. Herwig’s singular existences are embedded in non-embeddedness. Blackness thus queers action and non-action, activity and passivity, animal and plant, human and non-human, life and death, growth and destruction, nature and culture, which is why I eventually could not think of a better non-nature for Herwig’s natural art!
What happens if you extract a house from its being-a-knot-in-a-village? It becomes a cottage in the woods (or maybe here: in the rainforest). It is surrendered to nature. It loses the protection, the shell, the safe zone other houses had granted it, so that now moss is befalling it, insects approach it, and rains and winds directly hit on it. And what happens if a wolf is excluded from its pack? It might starve, because it cannot hunt alone. It becomes an easier target for hunters. Or it might become a victim of another pack attacking it. It hence forfeits its shelter, and becomes vulnerable. It seems to me that it is in this situation of distancing from normality, of being excluded and becoming detached, that Herwig depicts existences.
Yet the wolf was clever. What Herwig shows us are not weak existences, not existences suffering from a loss of companionship. These existences are fragile, but not feeble. They are not timid, but they intentionally withdraw. (Female) fragility has traditionally, historically been seen as monstrous. It was feared by (male) normality, and hence was suppressed, pushed into the background, contained in a lower form of existence (for this gendered claim, see Braidotti 2000, 156). Yet these existences embrace their fragility. They turn their fragility into a strength. They are gaining precisely by, from, in lacking. They take this experience of detachment from the comfort zone of already integrated identities (that the fire did to them, so one could interpret when putting these artworks into the context of Herwig’s journey to Brazil), from society with its inhibiting structures, from the bolstering connectivity to space/time as a chance to become, to enrich their web-ness, to acquire new selves. In doing so, they become open-ended becomings.
They become endless in themselves, the most self-enriching existences that I can think of, entirely free to become. These existences are not ‘a self’ anymore, but they are ‘selves’. They are not individuals, but individualizations. They are multiplicities. They ontologically are becomings. I think that Herwig intended to stress this point by means of his triptych “The Earth Will Spin Yet We Won’t Be There”, in which he shows us literal ‘existences’, hence not entities but events, not beings but becomings. Eventually, we cannot accurately define them by means of identities such as ‘the mushroom’ or ‘the blackberry’; but we rather need to account for them as ‘jellyings’, smokings, becomings, hence: morphings. These existences do as the wolf did, who was “not afraid of non-identity” (Morton 2007, 13), thus dared to strip off its former identity as a wolf, got itself enriched and transformed by a new and other community, and became a dog. These new inciting alliances here are e.g. the jelly or the smoke, who act like covers, or like the curtains of a fitting room: when they close, you know that something happens behind, so that when they open again, something new will appear.
On the other hand, what we are shown in “Deep Scattering Layer” are self-contained existences. These existences are not fearful. They might act as such, knowing that they need not be. And even if they, as non-human existences, need to be afraid of human existence, they know they can fear, intimidate, disgust us, and this capacity they exploit, they take to the extreme. They are not scared of the gaze of the human spectator, of the laboratory light that seems to flow over it, or of the look of someone intruding their habitat, as Herwig the artist temporarily did. Rather, they are courageous. They self-confidently stand our gaze, to determinately reject all our unwanted questions. They actively engage in a play of in/visibility, presence/absence, the chance for which the blackness provides them with. They are competent, and this precisely makes them fearsome. Also in this way, their adjective ‘singular’ shall be understood here.
In some sense, these existences are like the artist himself, who is not loud, who does not rush into the spotlight, but who rather is reserved, withdrawing, and therefore mysterious. Before meeting Herwig in person, I was expecting an extrovert guy who finds simple joy in perverting the natural. When conversing with him for the first time, I found his behaviour to be a misfit, his Austrian sweetness to create a tension to his monstrous, as my Slovak colleague Adrian Kvokačka said in a private conversation: his “teratological“ art. But his way of being haunted me, and in the aftermath of our encounter, I slowly (but steadily) came to understand its correspondence.
By their manner of existence, Herwig’s objectivist artworks increase the monstrosity of fragility. If being fragile has always been something monstrous; an existence that takes this fragility as a chance to become ready to become, to become agile, and that thereby becomes stronger, frightens normality even more. Such an existence challenges the norm in its norm-ness, and in so doing it creates an uncomfortable, discomforting suction into which the latter cannot refrain from being pulled. For this reason, such fragilities-turned-agilities tend to be directly foreclosed by the norm. They are monstrouized (the werewolf!). They are given a bad fame. And in this being-monstrouized, Herwig presents them.
There are works of the artist that can be seen on his Instagram page (see e.g. the post from 27 July 2020, or his works for the Tanzquartier Vienna) in which there are human elements, elements we are used to, paired with elements distorting what we are used to. But in and for these works, this humanity remains our anchor, and provides us a basis for discussion, such as: “it is the artist himself who wears, or out of whom grows a sort of wild meat”. In contrast thereto, the works shown in the present exhibition own no such human anchorage anymore, and to search for humanity therein remains in vain, leads astray. It is the plainly non-human, the more-than human. It is not art about us, but it is an art about something that is bigger and more important than we are. It is exclusively human-excluding realities that are shown here, for the sake of showing that reality exceeds the human. It is an art that is speculative, in the sense Fabrizio Terranova once defined this term: a narration that manifests the becoming of the world (see Terranova in Pihet 2017, 72). There is hence one very clear message in Herwig’s here exhibited work, so I perceive: Get off your high horse. You are not creation’s crown.
Yet if there is no human element anymore in this art, then two questions open up: How to speak or write about it? And why should we care? The here exhibited certainly is an art that is harder to discuss than what could be called ‘humanist’ art. But it is not an art that cannot be discussed. It is not an art that opens up one of Jean-François Lyotard’s “differends” (Lyotard 1988), hence it does not create an impossibility of phrasing. But it indeed is an art that wants us to (playfully, intuitively, aesthetically) engage with our frames, with the boundaries of our thoughts/discourses, and with the borders of our existence. In so doing, it affords another-than-modern terminology to approach it, for which I suggest a speculative one.
And why should we care? The fact that we are able to pose such a question shows post-modernity’s still pending indebtedness to the modern era; meanwhile today’s proper question (also for the sake of a cleansing of perspective) would be: How did we ever arrive at the belief that we could not care? With every instant of not caring, of not attending to them, we granted non-human fragilities like the ones Herwig shows us here more space to increase their power, all the while regarding us as successfully mastering them. In this regard, we could conclude by stating: They are not monsters. It is us who make them monsters.
Turning this thought around, when human thought does not attend to something, it is either because this something is so plain and simple that it does not require (even: that it is not worth of) any attention; or it is because this something is so clever and powerful that it achieves to slip through the grid of our attention by playing the plain meanwhile being the complex. Claiming that there is no such thing as the first scenario, Whitehead wrote: “The guiding motto in the life of every natural philosopher should be, Seek simplicity and distrust it” (Whitehead 2015, 104).