Henning Trüper: Günther Uecker – the Work of the Dead, and the Contemporaneity of Art

by Henning Trüper, Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies

In the art of Günther Uecker (b. 1930), the reality of work, of industrial labor, has found some surprising artistic outlets and associations. In this short essay I want to highlight some of these, with a view to intimating what “work” has come to mean in modern western societies, what meanings it is built on, and how it has come to structure, as a resource of meaning, a considerable part of contemporary art.

»Tokens of a rigid type, all of the same size and shape, products of industrial machinery and standardization, their expressive force is as a collective of non-individuals, as an ensemble.«

Uecker’s most “iconic” form is the Nagelbild he has developed since the 1950s, a plastic form that arguably echoes Man Ray’s surrealist iron with nails (Cadeau, 1921). Uecker has often worked with ready-made objects he penetrated with, or covered in carpets of, nails; other Nagelbilder are hybrids of painting and sculpture, with canvases covered in arrangements of nails that indicate order or disorder, natural or industrial landscape, or indeed inner landscapes of wildly swaying or rigidly controlled emotion (figure 1, 2). In this game of folding the inward and the outward into each other, the legacy of romanticism is still discernible. It is a pattern of mutual expression that entails the synchronicity of, say, nature and emotion. The presence of this pattern imposes a subtle limiting condition, an operational rule, on Uecker’s work with nails. Another condition of this individual genre is that it makes visible the distinction of carrier matter and expressive matter. It is the nails that draw the viewer’s primary attention, not the underlying canvas or other carrier objects; nails are the chief agents of expression, if that is the right word, in these creations. These nails, however, are serial objects. Tokens of a rigid type, all of the same size and shape, products of industrial machinery and standardization, their expressive force is as a collective of non-individuals, as an ensemble. The viewer’s gaze is not held by an individual nail; and the individual nail one may have briefly focused on, will be difficult to find back. The viewer’s gaze is not held by an individual nail; and the individual nail one may have briefly focused on, will be difficult to find back. The work the artwork carries out, in the mind of the beholder, is that of an arrangement of appropriated, redeployed industrial products, zweckentfremdet (alienated from their purpose). The preceding act of appropriation is one of workmanship as adapted to the pre-produced form of the nail; the artist adjusts his body to the necessities of the material; but the artwork is also determined by bodily possibilities, as its size is usually determined by Uecker’s actual reach. The artwork becomes an interface between the human body and the work of the machine. Its obstinate insistence on its own proper meaning, its Eigensinn, lies elsewhere, in a conquest of futility and uselessness, the production of an object that has no role to play in the circulation of objects that is industrial capitalism, and from which a strange, harsh kind of beauty is wrought.

»The artwork becomes an interface between the human body and the work of the machine.«

figure 1: Günther Uecker, Organische Struktur [Organic Structure], 1962, 110 x 110 x 8 cm, Nails and oil on canvas on wood, Frankfurt a.M., Städelmuseum.
figure 2: Günther Uecker, Weißer Schrei [White Scream], 1991, Latex paint, nails, canvas on wood, 240.5 x 202 cm, Schwerin, Staatliches Museum Schwerin.
The nail has played a rather specific role as an expression-bearing object – or depicted object – in the history of European art. It is most prominent in depictions of the crucifixion, and secondarily of other forms of martyrdom. The nail is a symbol of violence and pain, quite specifically inflicted on the body (figure 3). In an undercurrent of symbolic meanings, the nail is also a symbol of penetration and carries sexual connotations. The conjunction of pain and lust in the depiction of suffering is hardly novel. Yet, the use and overuse of nails in Uecker’s works signals also a departure from the iconographic tradition. The industrialized nail is overwhelmingly functional, a construction tool that aligns with the gestures and sounds of work; its shape and feel would appear grotesque in a crucifixion scene. In some of Uecker’s nail-covered objects, e.g. books or pieces of furniture (figure 4) the character of the coating of nails is almost that of a protection, an armament. Moreover, Uecker’s nails connote the texture of text, the dichotomy of the written page with its contrast of signs and non-signifying background.1 With regard to the traditional meaning of the nail, Uecker’s gesture, all in all, appears to be that of a formalist departure from an iconography whose expressive pretences had become empty. This implies a specific stance toward history, namely a gesture of departure from the past that marks the Nagelbild as a form of radical modernism. Uecker’s association with the “Zero Group,” an influential collective of conceptual object artists, all roughly the same age, who met as students at the Düsseldorf Academy of Arts in the 1950s, signaled that he shared, to some extent, in the willingness to be emphatically contemporary, to discard the past and embrace the material reality of the high-industrial present. The appropriation of industrial work is a case of modernity working out successfully; work is not only drudgery, but also indicative of a life with and among technical objects. This life has a tragic dimension; but tragedy has also been industrialized, it is, in a way, generic. The Nagebild is about nailing shut the coffin of the past; but this also means that the past, although it has passed, never fully passes, as long as this artistic practice is upheld.

»The appropriation of industrial work is a case of modernity working out successfully; work is not only drudgery, but also indicative of a life with and among technical objects.«

figure 3: Matthias Grünewald, Isenheim Altarpiece [1506-1515], detail: Crucifixion, hand of Christ. Colmar, Oil on wooden plate, Dimensions variable, Musée d’Unterlinden.
figure 4: Günther Uecker Bleibuch „Who is Who“, 1980, 21.5 x 14 x 8.5 cm, Book wrapped in lead plate, nails, private collection.

In recent years, Uecker has used press interviews to add to and in a way reinterpret the meaning of the Nagelbilder, specifically with regard to their relation to the past. In 2012, speaking to the Welt newspaper’s Cornelius Tittel, he recounted several personal memories from the end of the Second World War that he considered decisive for his artistic choices.2 Uecker had spent his childhood years in the Baltic coast of Germany, on the Wustrow Peninsula, a remote spot. He related two episodes as particularly significant. The first is one of nailing shut doors and windows of his childhood home in an effort to prevent the soldiers of the Red Army from entering. The sole male in the family at this point, for Uecker the success of this defensive craftwork would have been a source of pride and a symbol of imminent maturity, but also situated in a context of ubiquitous violence and intense shock. After a few weeks, relations with the Soviet occupiers would seem to have become more routine; but once more in his role as one of the few almost grown-up males in the area, Uecker was then ordered, along with two other boys his age, to inter a large number of dead bodies that had washed up on the beach. These corpses were the dead of the bombing of the Cap Arcona and two further, barely manoeuvrable former passenger ships that had been anchored in the Bay of Lübeck. Over the preceding weeks, the SS had used these ships for the imprisonment of a large number of concentration camp inmates who had been forced to Lübeck in death marches from camps all over Northern Germany. The intention had presumably been to eventually sink the ships and dispose of the slave workers in this manner; but the Royal Air Force, with British infantry having already reached the city of Lübeck on 2 May, flew an air raid on the flotilla and downed the vessels on 3 May. Some 400 of the prisoners survived, but around 7,000 of them did not; sailors and guard soldiers were also drowned in the hundreds. Their corpses landed on shores all around the bay, also in the Wustrow area. Uecker describes the situation as one of abandon: “far more” than a hundred dead bodies were left decomposing on the beach for weeks – “they lay tightly packed like tourists on Mallorca in the present day,” and “they were already mummified and infested with maggots” – until he and the two others were forced to drag them into a mass grave and cover them up. The only identifying markers the bodies still bore were the remainders of their prisoner or navy uniforms. “Seeing this decomposition has made me speechless for decades,” Uecker says, “only now in old age have I gained such composure in life (lebensgefasst) that I can speak about it.” It is important to him also to emphasize that his memories of the Soviet soldiers are not hostile; rather he speaks of their harrowed appearance and visible preceding suffering as having made a strong impression.

In the same interview, he also explains the origin of his artistic use of nailing: “As an art student in Düsseldorf I drew my first nude studies. As a person with a rural mindset and sensibility, it was quite disconcerting to maltreat a nude model, reduced to small scale, with the pencil; it really unsettled me, I got pimples from it. In fact, one pokes around with the pencil in the model’s vagina or pupil. To me it seemed a big lie. Then I read Mayakovsky – ‘Poetry is made with the hammer’3 – and beat the pencil into the paper. This was realism for me. Emotions are in the hand, the hand is the tool, and the workplace is art. From there it was only a small step to work with hammer and nails. This is how the path presented itself to me then. But of course autobiographic experiences in the subconscious shape present action.” So Uecker lays open a strategy of coping with revulsion about structural, also sexualized violence in artistic practice; and he emphasizes that this motif was not recognizable to him at the time, but appeared in theoretical, generic guise.

The painful, silencing memories from the end of the war function not as prefigurations of the practice of nailing, but rather as a revelation of the pervasiveness of violence that is to be countered. So artwork is engaged in a fight against suffering, near and far, concrete and abstract.

The role of the dead of the sea in this context is significant; unidentifiable except by the most tenuous markers, they are universal dead. They have traditionally been universal dead, but negative universals, marked by their non-belonging, and buried apart. In some stages of the history of the dead of the sea, washed-up corpses were even cremated, despite cremation was then in Europe still regarded as sacrilegious. This happened with the body of the poet Percy Shelley, who was drowned in a yachting accident off the Tuscan coast, as a consequence of laws of quarantine. The function of these laws appears to have been primarily symbolic, directed against the poisoning of the community of the living on land that the dead of the sea apparently threatened. Byron, who was present at Shelley’s cremation, allegedly extracted and preserved his friend’s heart (so much for quarantine).4 The practice of cremation was not imposed on other dead bodies; the latter’s ties to concrete communities of the living, undissolved by water, were still too strong, never mind the public health hazards they may have posed. The historian Thomas Laqueur points out, rightly, that there is such a thing as the “work of the dead,” their deployment for the maintenance of communities.5 The living are everywhere eager to claim the dead as “theirs,” as can be witnessed by the overwhelming uniformity of funerary rituals within cultural groupings. The development in modern Europe that exposes the dead and the living to options of burial, including even the option of anonymity, is world-historically speaking an exception. This exception arguably is only possible because Europeans have devised other ways of claiming the continuing belonging of the dead, for instance their inclusion into historical knowledge, in which a generalized memorialization of the dead takes place, for instance by assigning them a place, a plot, in broader categories of large-scale events and social formations. The dead of the sea, however, have in the past been exempt from the claims of the living, and their role has been to be exempt in this way, to mark the limits of the claims the living make on the dead. Uecker’s reference to the dead of the Cap Arcona appears to me compatible with this symbolic use of the dead of the sea, as a negative universal community that marks, above all, the frailty and vulnerability of humans and the non-belonging of the dead.

It is interesting that recent artistic work, in the logic of humanitarian engagement for the suffering, has retreated from this proposition. In 2015 the Zentrum für politische Schönheit (Center for Political Beauty), under the guidance of Philipp Ruch, exhumed several bodies of victims of refugee shipwreck in the Mediterranean that had been buried anonymously in Greece. With the help of forensic methods, the bodies were identified and then transported to Berlin, where they were reburied in marked and named graves (Die Toten kommen). This highly controversial happening, which involved mock graves in front of the federal parliament and led to heavy police action, is interesting as a signal that the universality of the drowned – I sommersi e i selvati, “The Drowned and the Saved” is the title of Primo Levi’s last work of reflection on the Shoah6 – is in the course of being abandoned.

Ruch’s performance with the dead is also an interesting signal that contemporary art has taken on traits that make it hard to distinguish, not merely from political protest, but also from humanitarian work.

The historical trajectory that led to this development is longer than one might be tempted to think, and the genre motif of shipwreck plays a significant role in it. Shipwreck had become a genre in Dutch painting in the seventeenth century, infused with eternal meanings that drew on the shipwreck and rescue of Saint Paul in Acts and the underlying apocalyptic meaning of the fable. The genre was mid-size, indicating its middling prestige in the art market. After shipwreck became a matter of ever-increasing public interest in the eighteenth century, around 1800, the genre, quite suddenly, most prominently in the oeuvres of William Turner and Théodore Géricault, changed its status.7 Shipwreck paintings became huge. They had a novel claim to size because they were suddenly part of the category of historical painting, the highest-fetching kind of painting before the breakdown of the academy and art market system later in the nineteenth century. While early modern representations of shipwreck had often been generic, the new romantic-era paintings identified the ships by name and sought to memorialize the victims of specific disasters. The most famous example is Géricault’s Radeau de la Méduse (figure 5) with its particularly haunting circumstances of abandonment and cannibalism and its radical political overtones, not least in terms of imperial race relations.

figure 5: Théodore Géricault, Le Radeau de la Méduse [The Raft of the Medusa], 1818, 491 x 716 cm, Oil paint on canvas, Paris, Louvre.
The wider history of artistic representations rendered shipwreck into one of the primary, and most visually gripping, symbols of human suffering at a distance and of the duties of engagement for this-worldly lifesaving. Romantic seascape painting frequently played with abandoning a perspectival vantage point on firm ground in order to draw the viewer into the event as an imaginary participant, a fellow-sufferer of the drowning in the water, or almost. The distance of the suffering was relative. Suffering became tied to spectatorship in novel ways, namely through connections that were so stable they could not be disrupted. Given that the witnesses to suffering by definition stood apart, the stability in question could only be achieved through the moral meaning with which the connection was charged. It was a bond of duty that underpinned the sentiments of empathy and practices of engagement for the suffering. This meaning was universal; it created a community of the suffering and the witnesses to suffering that overrode other communal bonds. One of the decisive conditions of this arrangement was that the witnesses and the suffering were in exactly the same moment; their timelines, as one might say, were perfectly synchronized. The occasionally eerie insistence of contemporary art to be art of the present moment, of a non-negotiable Now, finds its root, I believe, in this synchronization of the moral bond between the suffering and their distant witnesses. The “sublime” quality of this synchronicity, the overawing effect it exercises on the viewer, be it of romantic shipwreck paintings or of more recent works that exhibit their contemporaneity, has to do precisely with the fact that these artworks make visible synchronicity – our being in one and the same time – over distance. The romantic synchronization of the inner and the outer arguably is only a variant of this arrangement, since the pattern of the humanitarian template of synchronization is based on empathy, an emotive sharing of suffering as mediated, even commanded by moral imperatives.

It is within this array of symbolic meanings that the dead of shipwreck acquired a new significance: no longer that of the vanity of all earthly pursuits and the warning to mind the end and divine Judgment, but a memorial to suffering unalleviated, rescue missed, and duty unheeded. Turner, on an unfinished large canvas depicting a wreck thronged with figures of women and infants, picked up on a contemporary disaster, the sinking of the Amphitrite, an 1833 transport of female convicts from Britain to Australia that stranded and broke into pieces in view of the city of Boulogne-sur-Mer (figure 6).8 The press discourse at the time demonstrated considerable outrage at the various, if ultimately elusive, failures of the crew and of the Boulonnais to rescue these particularly vulnerable passengers. It is atypical for Turner’s treatment of shipwreck to foreground the actual wreck as much as he does here. The chosen perspective is from above deck, as if from one of the masts (into which the crew had climbed), in maximal exposition of the victims, and of the imperatives of rescue that went ignored.

»Precisely the tradition of social-realist painting that emerged in the late nineteenth century and depicted the dire conditions of labor at the apex of industrialization constituted a powerful template for socially engaged, activist art from which the unease in question was arguably lacking.«

Yet is also this section of the painting that is unfinished, perhaps unfinishable. The women, in the moment preceding their perdition, only form a mass of ghostly outlines. They haunt Turner’s canvas. The surrounding and underpinning landscape, or seascape, of wild, chaotic movement, by contrast, is fully executed. There is a moment in the artistic representation of the suffering or, more precisely, of those that have not been saved, at which the work recognizes the insurmountable detachment of the living and the dead, the point Levi stressed in 1986. This is the moment when the dead are employed in an artistic practice that has already accepted the imperatives of moral synchronicity in its effort to be contemporary. It seems remarkable that the embrace of humanitarian sujets (that is, of distant suffering) in the early nineteenth century tended to go along with a lingering sense of unease that pervaded the resulting artworks. The work of the dead in art, as it counters the calculus of the humanitarian bridging of distance between the suffering and the witnesses, is precisely to maintain this sense of unease. Subsequent artistic adoptions of the humanitarian sense of synchronicity and the ties of moral imperatives that bind the world together often appear to have felt this unease less. A considerable portion of present-day contemporary art appears far brasher about its humanitarian commitments, its “activist” ethos, its basis in trauma and its exposition, the underlying “wound,” as Joseph Beuys, in a multivalent installation, suggested (Zeige deine Wunde, 1974-6, Lenbachhaus, Munich;).9 Conversely, a sensorium for the detachment of suffering and witnessing and the frailty of empathy is often not on show. Precisely the tradition of social-realist painting that emerged in the late nineteenth century and depicted the dire conditions of labor at the apex of industrialization constituted a powerful template for socially engaged, activist art from which the unease in question was arguably lacking. The moral cause was taken to legitimize the work of art in an insurmountably powerful manner. The modernist tradition of representing work in art cannot be separated from the template of humanitarian engagement.

In Uecker’s work with nails, the tradition of unease within the humanitarian template, the work of the dead of the sea who are no one’s dead, has remained active. The shifting meanings of the nail, between the traumatic and the abstract, between the stand-in for the human figure and the interplay of order and chaos in the foundations of the world, would appear to leave the relations between the artwork and the reality of suffering on the move. His tendency to offer re-interpretive clues in personal memory might be read as a contribution to this mobility, so as to not let the works become static. The work of art, subject to the humanitarian template, would have to be ongoing, and so the artist’s involvement with its meaning, if not with its shape and form, would have to remain intact. The reflexivity the romantics still seem to have deemed necessary for working with and within the contemporaneity offered by the humanitarian template, requires this mobility. Still, as Ruch’s reburial of some of the dead of shipwreck indicates, the entire theoretical structure on which the contemporaneity of art rests is also mobile. The move of the humanitarian template to integrate the dead of the sea indicates that balance is hard, perhaps impossible to achieve and transcends the scope of any single artist’s work. Precisely for this reason, the trajectories of the work of the living and the work of the dead across the corpus of contemporary art ought to be tracked. And on account of the heritage of the humanitarian template within the representation of work in modern art, it is always worth asking what the dead are up to.

1 Britta Julia Dombrowe, Redepflicht und Schweigefluss: Zur Gestalt, Bedeutung und Funktion von Günter Ueckers Bibliophilen Werken, Mainz: Chorus, 2006.

2 Cornelius Tittel, Günther Uecker – mit Nägeln gegen die Russen: Interview, Die Welt 31.05.2012 (subsequently quoted passages: author’s translation).

3 The origin of this quotation is somewhat obscure; from a philological point of view, Uecker appears to be combining a phrase of Nietzsche’s (“philosophizing with the hammer”) with an alleged saying by Mayakovsky according to which the artwork is a hammer with which to shape society. 

4 Hermione Lee, Shelley’s Heart and Pepys’s Lobster, in Body Parts: Essays in Life Writing, London: Chatto & Windus, 2005, 6-27. 

5 Thomas W. Laqueur, The Work of the Dead, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015. 

6 Primo Levi, I sommersi e i selvati, Turin: Einaudi, 1986. 

7 Brian Venning, A Macabre Connoisseurship: Turner, Byron and the Apprehension of Shipwreck Subjects in Early Nineteenth-Century England, Art History 8.3 (1985), 303-319. 

8 The connection of the painting to the disaster was established by Cecilia Powell, Turner’s Women: The Painted Veil, Turner Society News 63 (March 1993), 12–15. 

9 Joseph Beuys, Zeige deine Wunde, photographs by Ute Klophaus, 2 vols. Munich: Schellmann & Klüser, 1980.