Anja Luithle


Between dust and stars
Alice Wilke

Imagine, you enter into the exhibition space of Anja Luithle’s works as an investigator would into the scene of a crime. Having come by invitation, and with a knowledge of the usual proceedings of this exhibition space, everything seems at first rather unsuspicious. However, once in the space, in the middle of it all, your senses become sharpened and your attention demanded by every detail. You begin to seek out hidden connections in an attempt to acquire the most comprehensive picture of the setting you are now presented with. It is undeniable that there is an essential similarity between a probing observation of art and a forensic search for the traces and evidence of a crime. This follows from the claim that the beauty of a work of art does not lie solely in its aesthetically perceivable and thus exclusively visual qualities, but rather that such beauty is essentially created by its claim upon the intellect. In the work of Anja Luithle, the attentive viewer finds both these possible aspects of beauty’s perception united.
We turn our attention first to the immediately apparent visual stimuli of shapes, colors and materials, as well as the qualities of the works’ Gestaltung. To those familiar with her work, it need not be emphasized that everything down to the smallest detail has been meticulously handcrafted to the highest level of perfection. It is often said that her works have something very seductive about them. They address the observer directly, one recognizing with immediacy the essence of these everyday objects that are reproduced and fashioned in a most realistic manner. This is only an initial impression, however, for, upon closer inspection, a thoughtfulness replaces the feeling of immediacy of that first look. What does this object tell me? Of what does it whisper? The criminologist knows that objects can speak and that they are furthermore capable of telling stories, though a certain intuition is required to interpret such tales. This is especially true for readings of contemporary art. Sometimes even the determined observer can be quickly put off the trail by an artwork’s hermetic effects, but no such repellant attributes are detectable in the images and objects of Anja Luithle. Readily the viewer follows the subtle traces intentionally left by the artist, allowing him to grasp the hidden stories writ large in her works’ flawless surfaces. In so doing, he is guided by his own expectations and experiences with which the objects demand a confrontation. Thus, the involvement of the observer with the work becomes a dialog of the viewer with himself, an almost involuntary engagement with his own imagination, ideas, and even sometimes his instinctive prejudices.
Elevated on a pedestal in the middle of the exhibition space stands a single shoe. The motif itself is hardly new within the oeuvre of Anja Luithle if one considers the series “casting shoes” (2012), a grouping of deceptively lifelike pairs of male and female shoes produced from resin that step rhythmically upon their pedestals with the aid of hidden motors. Though they appear quite droll at first, after a time they begin to appear nightmarish: in motion yet making no forward progress, these kinetic objects conjure a feeling both familiar and unpleasant that is emblematically communicated. However, the shoe in this exhibition is different. Bright red, it stands alone and stands quite still. Moreover, it is hard to imagine how someone could walk in these over-the-top heels. Their extremely exaggerated form and over-bright color in no way refer to a shoe as everyday object. Their extreme appearance does not, however, leave one cold, though the peculiarly diffuse feeling of desire that the shoe is capable of provoking in the viewer does not coincide precisely with a feeling of “shoe-crazy.” Every shoe lover knows from their own experience the special physical feeling of wearing high heels: that noticeable change in posture and manner of walking, and the effects thereby hopefully achieved, which merit any accompanying pain. The sight of this absurdly elevated heel, the form of the plateau stiletto grotesquely exaggerated, strikes, instead, a much darker chord upon the keys of human desire.
The first to dare to put such feelings of desire into words was the Frenchman Nicolas-Edme Rétif de la Bretonne (1734-1806), who, in 1769, wrote a text on his fetishistic appetite for female shoes. However, beside this connotation of a purely sexually oriented fetish, stands, in this shoe-object of Anja Luithle, the connotation suggested by Karl Marx’s (1818-1883) theory of “commodity fetishism.” The term refers to the peculiar relation of the consumer with the man-made products that serve in a society as commodities. If these materially pure “products of labor” become a commodity, a fetishistic character is thereby added to them. Such a character is of neither natural nor logical origin but, rather, is retroactively attributed to these products by the consumer. There are relatively few commodities displaying this theory so vividly as do women’s handmade high-heeled shoes. The effect is quantifiable and can be observed in most every shoe boutique in cities across the globe. “Something obvious and trivial” is transformed in front of our eyes into an object of sensuous desire and causes within one reflexes extending deep into the psychological realm of the pursuit of property, wealth, beauty and power. The blood-red heel made by Anja Luithle is a fetish object par excellence. It embodies this mechanism of fetish production in three ways: as a man-made object, as an artwork, and, thus, as a commodity in itself, which, it follows, carries the potential to satisfy the same human needs of status elevation and social acceptance as other so-called luxury goods do. Yet, there is a crucial and intrinsic difference that, in effect, transforms this otherwise profane object into an artwork, that is, the sublime moment of critical reflection and the accompanying positing of questions possible only in this context. Or, as the artist Ad Reinhardt (1913-1967) said in a 1962 interview: “Art is art-as-art, and everything else is everything else.” The riddle-like character of art must be endured and not found to be frustrating. On the contrary, it is this very quality which allows the fantasy of art to take flight. Such is the case with this lonely platform shoe of Anja Luithle, whose questions remain forever unanswered. What Cinderella could have left it?

Through the name of this work, “Das Erbe” (The Inheritance), echoes a hint of sadness. The melancholic title subtly carries within it a moment of a memory of a human being. The red heirloom of this shoe leaves, the more one thinks about it, a strong impression of fate or fortune. One is often tempted to immediately personify the objects in Anja Luithle’s works. For the viewer, her objects become agents for or possessions of personages and characters whose strengths and weaknesses are discoverable. Whosoever wears such heels must surely desire to fly high. But will she succeed or will she fail? The shoe becomes a symbol, not for the tough endurer of great distances but for the proverbial reach for the stars, for the never-ending pursuit of happiness and for the naïve belief in the rags-to-riches myth. After rolling the rock up the mountain, one loses it at the top only to watch it roll all the way back down. Apart from Albert Camus (1913-1960) himself, no one expressed this in more beautiful words than did F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940) in his masterpiece The Great Gatsby, at the end of which is written: “Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter – tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther ... And one fine morning – So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

Though it is hardly suggested at first sight, this ludicrous shoe, which by all appearances has stepped out of a cartoon, is closely related in theme to a series of linoprints that Anja Luithle has recently begun which discuss with an equal amount of irony that which is “human, all too human,” albeit via a different medium. In this series, she combines selected sequences of images from the successful French comic strip Asterix with Latin quotations from Antique Roman poetry made famous over the centuries. The combination of these two elements into singular text-images is not so wild, as many young children learn their first words of Latin whilst reading the Asterix comic books. In one of Luithle’s prints, one can read the words “per aspera ad astra” in a reversed mirror-image. The expression, translated as “through the dust to the stars,” originates in the tragedy Hercules furens by the Roman writer and philosopher Seneca (ca. 1-65 AD). In the second act of the play, Megara, the brave wife of Hercules, who she hopes will be able to escape the Underworld, confronts Lycus with the following words: “There is no easy way from the earth to the stars.” Though Megara expresses herself well, as behooves a king’s daughter, in the Asterix comic image, a cook, serving up both a hearty meal and pithy quote, puts it in more down to earth terms: “Ohne Fleiß kein Preis” (No pain, no gain). Deliciously amusing is Obelix’s mishearing of Fleiß (effort) as Fleisch (meat).

A similar combination of irony, wordplay and worldly wisdom can be found in the two other images contained in this series. Such interplay of image and verse creating doubled meanings and dualistic statements has a long art historical tradition. The art of emblematic representation, which had its zenith in the 16th century, is defined by the production of a special, sometimes quite cryptic connection between image and text whose contents always directly refer to each other. Traditionally, emblems, usually in the form of woodcut depictions of allegorical scenes, were interpreted as representing ethical and moral codes of behavior. Though her emblems are not so strictly trisected as in the Classical manner into a motto (Lemma), an image (Icon) and a text (Epigram), the linoprints of Anja Luithle can be seen as continuing in this image tradition, being, like woodcuts, relief-cut prints. Within her emblems, however, the role of the text is supplanted by that of the motto, the text appearing as a repetition or variation of what the image portrays – and vice versa – through which the meaning of both elements is doubled and reinforced. True, so true again. The various functions of the emblem - as an intellectual game, as an instrument of humanistic education and as a vehicle for the tradition of certain visual motives - find themselves in a general form once more in this image series by Anja Luithle. Both the comic strip scenes and the Latin verses are well known and belong fully to the Western canon, but the manner in which these elements from high and low culture are combined is quite exciting and new.

A further distinctive variation on this combinatoric work can be found in the three-part installation located in the second space of the exhibition, “Esel durch die Maschen ganz oben irren/es wird mit mir das Haus bügeln/ die Puppen verspielt auswendig inwendig/ unverblümt durch die Wände lachen/ um den Verstand ein fünfter Freund” (Donkeys through the bows far up err/ it will iron the house with me/ the playful dolls know it in know it out/ bluntly laughing through the walls/ around reason a fifth friend). What sounds like some Dadaist poetry from Kurt Schwitter’s (1887-1948) literary output is, in matter of fact, an accidental juxtaposition of word and sentence fragments from the 18 markers positioned on a slowly revolving signpost. The installation is the kinetic construction of a so-called “Titelmaschine” (Title-machine). An unbelievable 36x1035 possible combinations of words, and even more numerous phrase variations, can be generated by this instrument - a useful tool for the always tortuous search for suitable artwork titles. Every sign is hand-painted in a typographic style somewhat reminiscent of the calligraphy used by René Magritte in his famous text-images. With every movement of each independently turning sign, complex constellations of ideas and thought-images appear and vanish in front of the mind’s eye. The “Titelmaschine” is a poetic sculpture that can be both vertically and horizontally oriented and, thus, is legible in multiple, criss-crossing directionalities of thought. The form and structure of the machine can be traced genealogically back to that important figure in the history of culture and knowledge, the alphabet tree, a visual model that suggests that thought can be ordered in categories following the natural branching structures of a tree. The gestalt of the tree as a dynamic model for the structuring and ordering of knowledge was originally developed in the 13th century by the Catalan philosopher Ramon Llull (ca. 1232-1316). The classification system he proposed in his work on combinatorics, Ars magna, has had far-reaching influence on fields such as the design and layout of modern computer technologies. As can be proven by reviewing the tradition of pictorial representation, a close connection between the figure of the tree and the alphabet has been present since Medieval times. The tree is, thus, an instrument for the visualization of language. Cultural theorist Thomas Macho writes in his essay on the use of the tree form as a pictorial means of ordering systems of thought: “They transport stories, systems of knowledge and horizontal and vertical conjunctions. As gestalts, they indicate what they want to effect: the growth, the augmentation, and the multi-perspectival branching of a knowledge that is expressed both in images and numbers as well as in letters and script.” With Anja Luithle’s marvelous “Titelmaschine,” poetry becomes a game. Her word-trees are visual poetry brought from the surface of a page into three-dimensional space. The poem becomes an active closed-circuit, a flux of words reminding their reader of the changeless becoming and decay of things.
Thus, one moves from initially perceiving the clear, outer forms of Luithle’s work to its deeply philosophical content. At one moment loosely and at another more tightly, her works circulate around the more or less innocent, more or less mischievously coy peculiarities and characteristics of the mind’s attitudes. These are not limited to simplistic divisions into good and evil such as might be superficially suggested by her large-format linoprints of wolves and sheep. The negative-positive printing technique of the images is deceptive and the mental associations proliferate as with the artist’s mechanisms of kinetic objects and installations. These works intend to carry the imagination to a point of extremity, which does not bring to light the painful truth of our inadequacies before it itself becomes a clichéd exaggeration. Here too, the concrete image is tightly interwoven within the system of language. Familiar quotations are ubiquitous in her work; the subtext runs in the background even where it isn’t legible in letters. To howl with the wolves or to drift with the flock, to be an alpha-animal or to fade into the crowd? The human being is and shall remain the strangest of all animals. Anja Luithle offers the appropriate Latin motto, Homo homini lupus, a quote from the Roman comic poet Titus Maccius Plautus (ca. 254–184 BC), which became famous thanks in part to the British political philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), who put it thus: “To speak impartially, both sayings are true: that man to man is a kind of God; and that man to man is an arrant wolf.” As in every subset of society, there are both blatantly obvious and ingeniously sophisticated hierarchies within the art world. There, just as anywhere else, it is about the competition for the highest rank and the fight for prestige and recognition. He who is unprepared to take a risk will never outperform his neighbor. The striving towards distinction, this too is the story of the red shoe. It becomes a symbol for all of the tragic Icarus and Sisyphus characters in this play of life between dust and stars, in which we ceaselessly hope for our fifteen minutes of fame. The works of Anja Luithle reflect in a special manner the self-questioning – cogito ergo sum (sum sum) – and the facets of the artist’s being, all the while retaining a self-deprecating twinkle in the eye. At the end of the exhibition, a simple image is emblazoned on the wall along with the sentence: “All artists are equal, but some are more equal than others.” It would be laughable indeed to think that Anja Luithle’s work doesn’t revolt against such dicta. This aphorism, adapted from George Orwell’s (1903-1950) famous Animal Farm, which, ironically modified and transplanted into the present context, shines a harsh light on the art system as a whole and the artist’s role therein. As for her own artistic production, humor is and remains the best weapon.

Alice Wilke
Kunsthalle Göppingen, 2013

1 Nicolas-Edme Rétif de la Bretonne, Le pied de Fanchette, ou l'Orpheline française; histoire intéressante et morale, Eslinger/Humblot 1769; Éditions Garnier 2011.
2 Karl Marx, “4. Der Fetischcharakter der Ware und sein Geheimnis“ in: Karl Marx. Friedrich Engels. Werke, Dietz Verlag Berlin, 1962, p.85-98.
3 Ad Reinhardt, as quoted in: Barbara Rose (ed), Art As Art. The Selected Writings of Ad Reinhardt, University of California Press, 1975, p.53.
4 Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus And Other Essays, Vintage Books, Reissue Edition, 1991.
5 F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby, Wordsworth Editions Limited, Hertforshire, Reissue Edition 1993, p.115.
6 “Non est ad astra mollis e terries via”, Charles Beck (ed), Tragedy of Seneca, Boston: James Munroe and Company, 1845, p.21, line 437.
7 Thomas Macho, “Die Bäume des Alphabets”, in: Neue Rundschau, 116. Jahrgang / # 2, Frankfurt am Main, 2005, p.66-80.
8 “lupus est homo homini, non homo, quom qualis sit non novit.“, Plautus, Asinaria, line 495. http://www.thelatinlibrary.com/plautus/asinaria.shtml
9 Thomas Hobbes, as quoted in: Sir William Molesworth (ed), Thomas Hobbes of Malmesbury, Vol. II, London John Bohn, 1841, p.ii.
10 Paraphrased from George Orwell’s novel Animal Farm (1945). The single commandment for the pig-governed animal community is: „All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.“ George Orwell, Animal Farm. 1984, Harcourt Books, 2003, p.80.

Text for the Catalogue "ganz oben rückwärts um die Ecke", Künstlerhaus Saarbrücken 2013
Translation: Maison Intertext