His drawings orchestrate a veritable theater of cruelty: limbs are torn off children, a skeleton in slippers penetrates a woman; a pack of martyrs spit, spray, and otherwise excrete in a turbulence of provocation and reaction, violence and reciprocation, clawing and biting and piling up on one another to form tenuous structures.
Ralf Ziervogel draws these figures limited by the radius of his hand. As a result of his working process, the elaborate scenes gradually burgeon in an organic accumulation of horror. The link between enlightenment and sadism described by both Horkheimer and Adorno resonates in the exactitude with which the drawings are executed and in the logic with which the violence spreads, as though in a chain reaction. Appalled by the Second World War, these two thinkers held instrumental reason responsible for the catastrophes of their century, discovering as the artistic spearhead of this development the Marquis de Sade, whose drastic literature systematically thought the cold rationalism of the Enlightenment through to its ultimate conclusion. Has Ralf Ziervogel also regarded himself over these past three years as a moral-free libertine converting social phenomena into bitter symbols?
The artist has announced that he's finished with making drawings of human bodies. "The declination of the human body is complete," he says at the age of 33. Yet we can't dismiss these images quite so quickly; we still have a few questions to ask. Ziervogel actually lives in Berlin, but is currently working for a year in New York on a grant. We phone through the Internet; the artist's voice has a tinny ring to it and the unmistakable wail of American police car sirens can be heard in the distance. It's a little strange not to see him during the interview-particularly when it comes to speaking about images of the body.
Daniel Völzke: Mr. Ziervogel, how are you?
Ralf Ziervogel: Very well, thank you.
The idea of the human being that seems to lie at the heart of your drawings is disheartening. The writer Dietmar Dath describes the drastic as a form that presupposes an image of human fear of the self should modernism's social promise go unfulfilled. Do your drawings fall into this category?
I'm more interested in formal issues, in getting closer to the architecture of human bodies. I tell myself: OK, I understand this figure and what's happening to it. And I want to get the most out of the simplicity and fragility of human bodies as I can. For instance, if the body I am drawing is so shattered that it can no longer survive, then I insert syringes to keep the organism alive.
So you are concerned with plausibility?
The depiction tries to legitimize itself through causal relationships. I reproduce the figures and let them take over one another. But then I have to provide a reason for their movement: these figures aren't simply flying around like Superman, but there are bamboo poles; they are standing on a kind of scaffolding that is collapsing. The drawings are never one dense allover; I try to allow for avenues of escape. They have to be clean and direct, but I always leave some naked paper on the wall, too. A harmonious structure has to be avoided. If you look at it from a social perspective, there's nothing serene about this pseudo-democratic dance of positioning oneself somewhere.
Even though your drawings depict people on a creaturely level, the interplay between the bodies seems as plausible as a machine. Is this what you mean by "architecture of human bodies"?
Exactly. What I mean is that the machine keeps running: you go out; you do your work. But there's always some doubt as to how much sense there is in this work. What is individuality today? In my drawings, the people seem individual-particularly in the way they are maltreated. But the violence continues from one body to the next, resulting in a machine that subtracts the individual from the bodies.
Everyone is both victim and perpetrator. Is it morality that you miss today?
In terms of content, morality would not be particularly conducive to this kind of art. The power of my drawings consists purely in their formal declination of the body, which dissolves it to the point of disappearance, to the point that it almost turns into landscape. If I were to draw large, gestural images, the obsession with violence would steer the whole thing in the direction of content. But the delicate style dampens the force a bit, because the works take on the appearance of precious art relics.
Are your works often seen as a provocation?
Pretty often. In exhibitions, though, the reactions are mixed. And it's important for me to experience this, which is why I'm not only concerned with carrying out my formal experiments in some quiet place somewhere; I also want to communicate them. The consolation in drawing is that I don't want to be an outsider to society; I want to know what I am dealing with. This is why I get involved with the works, why I don't leave things at the level of commentary, but take them further. If people really want to talk to each other without going crazy, then this is how you have to do it.
Do you also see your art as a symbol of a social condition? The people you draw are from today-they use mobile phones and wear brand-name clothing associated with youth culture. Well, you know, I scribble something and then I look out the window, where I see these disco guys-a reality check that I imbed into the works in a banal structural way: the triangles on his T-shirt turn into more triangles and eventually into a structure. The brand names are not meant as signs; this no longer works, because fashion's symbolic densifications have fallen apart. Five years ago, the term "metrosexual" was coined to create a new category. No one is interested in this anymore. If you continue to feed it, the system winds up consuming itself. It only continues to operate commercially. Ex-punks are sitting on the editorial board of tabloid newspapers, like the hippies that go on to make big bucks. First we start up Google in a garage, then all of a sudden we're billionaires. And then I look just like the Apple head Steve Jobs and contract cancer. In the end, everything comes back to the body.
How did you first arrive at the human body?
Our parents' generation made up concepts to secure themselves a really great place in art history. Today, everything is thrown together in a polymorphous way, and as an artist all you can do is try to come up with a position. But every gesture has been used; every saying has been said. So there you are, and you think: shit, some stupid Jeff Koons remark in some art book is worth more than the crap I make. I've carried out minimalist experiments; I've drawn cubes and squares-in order to apprehend myself by means of my own body. One million dots per square meter, a drawing that takes months to make. Perseverance. This also implies the danger of becoming too illustrative, like Reiner Ruthenbeck, who knocks a sheet of paper around with a pencil for hours. I do the same thing, but I try to gain a greater distance to these experiments. What I want to phase out completely is whether or not this is in or not, whether it's already been done. The one thing I want to achieve is not to become a cliché. That I'm not standing at a gas station one day and a TV team comes along and asks, "What do you have to say about the rise in gasoline prices?" and I answer, "It's a big scam!" Ever since the '50s, everything has been revolving, there's no real point of connection. It's all a lot of hot air, all CO2.
Then the problem with the people you draw is that they keep on going instead of dying. Is this a reckoning with old people who no longer want to be old?
Parents are trying to dig themselves out of their own generation. They don't want any more experiments, they want to live ultra healthy, spend the whole day jogging and going to the organic foods store. And then they say to their alcoholic kids: hey, you look like shit, take a look at us! These salon revolutionaries want to call all the shots and survive everything-they're like cockroaches. It's caught up with their bodies now, too. As artists, this generation doesn't really operate with any degree of openness. Gestures sweep across the paper, and they bumble around with sentences like "the metaphysical power of the in-between allows thoughts to freely unfold." What's that supposed to mean? It's better to have the guts to say that's an arm, or that's a fly. The human image is something people understand. It's just as accessible to the blockheads as to the pseudo-intellectual generation. The body should just be a variable that even people at the North Pole understand when the drawings are dug out from beneath the snow.
But now you've announced that you've given up the human figure and the excesses of explicit depiction, even though you've been very successful with these works on the art market. Have the drawings become art fetishes?
At some point, the bodies simply fell apart; everything was dismembered and only vaguely recognizable. And then I'm like a locust that says: this terrain is barren and has to be abandoned. Of course, I could try to make everything even more extreme. But then it would be perceived through the content again, and not the form. Even though everything progressed in one fluid current. These images aren't really on my mind at all anymore, although the current drawings are based on the previous works. For instance, I draw insects that might have decomposed the bodies. Yet it's odd that they seem so aggressive again, that they have to assert themselves the same way the people did in my earlier works.