The politics of the
aesthetics of politics

Notes on the work of Roland Schappert

Thomas Wulffen, 2009
Translated by Jacqueline Todd

“The Berliner Zeitung newspaper reports on is back page today (20.8.2008) that Amy Winehouse has checked back into a rehab clinic, and that the clinic is located near the prison where her husband is serving his sentence until the end of the year. With this additional piece of information, however, a direct connection is established between politics and aesthetics.”

These words are no longer to be found in the last authorized edition, but they can be verified by means of a notebook containing a variety of observations and remarks. This Swiss-made, black oilcloth-bound, notebook, measuring 10 x 14.7 cm, serves as a kind of reservoir for the whole project of writing a novel centred on the late modern relationship between politics and aesthetics. The novel thereby makes specific reference to the notion of the “aesthetic regime of art“ as described in the writings of Jacques Rancière. The following is a definition that also appears in the novel: “What I call an aesthetic regime is a regime that no longer presupposes any form of adequation, in other words any hierarchy of this kind. This regime defines the things of art not according to the rules of their production but in terms of their belonging to a specific sensorium and to a specific mode of experience.”1

The novel “Die Täuschung der Welt” (The Deception of the World) deals with this mode of experience in a particular way: next to the actual text there are many images and images of images. Text and image exemplify a further statement by Jacques Rancière that follows on directly from the previous quotation: “This does not mean that we are in the world of pure spirits with no connection to social reality. It means that artistic products are no longer defined by the degree of elevation of the subjects they address, the end or purpose they fulfil or the social forces they serve.”2

At this point let us turn our attention to Roland Schappert’s “Alleinunterhalter” (solo entertainer) series, which was presented for the first time in an exhibition in 2005. The press release to accompany the project reads: “In his new project ‘Alleinunterhalter’, Roland Schappert focuses on the complex identity construction of people who earn their living by providing musical entertainment without their name ever being associated with a hit record – because they’ve never had one. With no band colleagues to support him, the solo entertainer is wholly responsible for making an event a success: thanks to his professional keyboard, the sound quality is almost as good as if it were Frank Sinatra singing, while he himself – ‘live and in person’ – gives his best rendition of ‘New York, New York’. Musical quotations and auratic borrowings from real stars are used to create an atmosphere that aims to be identical to the experience of the original; ideally, therefore, the solo entertainer’s song functions as a sign of the ‘real’ we have experienced elsewhere. But because the sign can also evoke the same reactions as the real, it simultaneously becomes its synonym.

Schappert has an abiding interest in hybrid constructions that have not become completely entangled in the discursive web of presentation and representation, reality and projection, real and fake. The ultimately indeterminable identity of the solo entertainer is examined by the artist through a variety of media: his primary source materials are the photographic self-portrayals of ‘real’ solo entertainers found on the Internet, a single detail of which is selected by Schappert – pars pro toto – and translated into his own photographic language of fragmented surfaces combined with a painterly luminosity.

As well as serving as a basis for his own pho tographs, the source images are used by the artist to create hand-drawn portraits that remove the different personalities of the solo entertainers from the context of their activity and thus give them back the quality of a human counterpart. And finally, the viewer is given the chance to experience the actual impact of light music and Schappert’s both directly sensual and reflexive method in the form of a musical sculpture and a photobased video work. Due to the fact that the artist here shows an arrangement of unprocessed material, these works in a representative manner put the theme of the exhibition firmly back into the social context.”3

The inclusion of the above quotation serves a dual function. On the one hand, it reveals the complex relationship between image and representation in Roland Schappert’s work. On the other, it highlights the transformative, multimedia construction of his projects. And yet the portraits are in fact “old-fashioned” likenesses, which nevertheless allude to social functions.

In Schappert’s most recent works from 2006 onwards, the depicted subjects are mainly pop culture icons. Their hand-drawn portrayal by the artist lends them an almost personal identity that pushes their iconic character into the background. In the exhibition “Black”, Schappert chose a very specific form of depiction to portray the iconic figures of James Brown, Johnny Cash and Amy Winehouse.4 The basis for the image remains the actual portrait of the respective subject, surrounded by a specific kind of black that recalls the shellac records our forefathers knew. At the same time, however, in the quotations “I’m Black & I’m Proud”, “Man in Black” and “And I go back to black”, the colour black becomes a vehicle of emancipatory consciousness. Underlying the portrai series there is in fact also a question as to the political content of contemporary art – not in a dog matic or socially critical sense, but rather imbued with an openness that favours darkness and indetermination over predetermined illumination or focussing. In the artist’s own words: “Visual art oscillates between cool design, Abstract Expressionism, Arte Povera and the simple aesthetic shadow of umbra aesthetica. The aesthetic darkness of defectus lucis, on the other hand, still seems to have only a negative character.”5

Amy Winehouse and other figures like her are icons of mass culture, in which and through which barriers are being broken down. To quote Jacques Rancière: “what is ‘specifi c’ [propre] to art is a specific sphere of experience, not one derived from laws or the properties of its objects. On the one hand, there are no longer any high or low subject matters, no noble or vulgar genres: anything whatsoever can enter the realm of art on an equal basis”. 6 Elsewhere Rancière makes further reference to the “aesthetic regime”: “The aesthetic regime of the arts dismantled this correlation between subject matter and mode of representation.”7 Is this why the portrait drawings seem so oldfashioned to the viewer, because they recall that lost correlation? Only for it to be broken apart again in the generated images shown on the nearby TV screen. “On the one hand, the technological revolution comes after the aesthetic revolution. On the other hand, however, the aesthetic revolution is first of all the honour acquired by the commonplace, which is pictorial and literary before being photographic or cinematic.”8

This also serves to illustrate a topic addressed by Roland Schappert, the scope of which extends from the solo entertainer to the iconic figure, from the rise to the fall. In doing so he crosses media borders he no longer seems to be aware of. The artist’s notes published in 2003 in his book “POETRY KOOPERATIONEN”9 include the following statement: “Constantly changing the subject prevents conflict.” The book itself deals both with changing the subject and with the transgression of media boundaries. One could also describe it as a sampling technique that is applied not just to music10 but also to images and language. However it always contains an element of recognition. The concept of iconicity itself is likewise based on a form of recognition. The proximity of the iconic sign to the iconic figure is an underlying theme in Schappert’s oeuvre. This results in a proximity to literature that is unusual for a visual artist. Schappert’s works are in a certain sense “reports” in a medium other than that of reportage. This aspect affords viewers a level of accessibility that remains effective even when the disco ball is standing on the floor rather than hanging from the ceiling, or when the record seems only to be playing as a video image on the TV screen.

This specific kind of reportage can be linked to the following insightful remark by Jacques Rancière, which relates to the emergence of the mass audience in art: “It is first and foremost rooted in the aesthetic logic of a mode of visibility that, on the one hand, revokes the representative tradition’s scales of grandeur and, on the other hand, revokes the oratorical model of speech in favour of the interpretation of signs on the body of people, things and civilizations.”11 Should, then, Roland Schappert’s works and depictions in the form of complex installations also be regarded as a specific interpretation in this sense?

In fact the novel “Die Täuschung der Welt” is itself a deception, because it is image and representation at once – in the same way as the solo entertainer literally “entertains himself” *. Roland Schappert’s art walks the thin line between image and representation. The decision as to what is fact and what is fiction has to be made on a different level. Amy Winehouse lives.

1 Jacques Rancière, Ist Kunst widerständig?, Berlin, 2008, pp. 40 – 41.
2 Ibid., p. 41.
3 Dagrun Hintze, artfinder Galerie, Hamburg, 2005.
4 “Black”, kjubh Kunstverein e. V., Cologne, 2008.
5 Statement by Roland Schappert in the press release to accompany “Black”, March 2008.
6 Jacques Rancière, Ist Kunst widerständig?, op. cit., pp. 41 – 42.
7 Jacques Rancière, the Politics of Aesthetics: the Distribution of the Sensible, trans. Gabriel Rockhill, London, 2006, p. 32.
8 Ibid. p. 33.
9 Roland Schappert, POETRY KOOPERATIONEN. MIT GÄSTEN, Cologne, 2003.
10 See also the text by Joachim Ody, “Rhythmik und Melodik (Sound Poetry)” in POETRY KOOPERATIONEN. MIT GÄSTEN, op. cit.
11 Jacques Rancière, the Politics of Aesthetics: the Distribution of the Sensible, op. cit., p. 34.
* translator’s note: this is a pun on the German terms “unterhalten” (to entertain), “sich unterhalten” (to amuse oneself) and “sich unterhalten mit” (to converse with).

Reflect me the light, Künstlerbuch, Hardcover, 96 Seiten mit 113 Abb. und Texten von Stefanie Kreuzer, Annette Tietenberg, Thomas Wulffen und Arne Zerbst, deutsch/engl., Salon Verlag, Köln 2009. ISBN 978-3-89770-318-6