Artful Green Dot

A Conversation with Klaus Ottmann

Posted in Interviews by Audrey Tran on February 8, 2009

I contacted Klaus Ottmann after coming across his lovely introduction in  Agnes Denes’ The Human Argument. I was struck first by Denes’ writing, and then by Ottmann’s particular perspective on Dene’s body of work:

“Denes is, by today’s standards, an artist and thinker  of the rarest kind. She posses […] an encyclopedic curiosity and a considerable knowledge about the world–something that was more common among philosophers and some artists before the end of the nineteenth century, before knowledge broke apart into countless specializations.” The following is a brief and to-be-continued talk with Ottmann on Denes’ work and the environmental art movement.

AT:  Why did you choose to publish the book in 2008?  Was there something specific about last year or the past few years that made you revisit Denes’ older writing?

KO: The book of Agnes Denes’s writings was actually in the works already for several years. I decided to start a series of books of artist’s writings, which began with my translation of Yves Klein’s writings, published in 2007. Denes was an artist that I had known for a long time about. The next one, the writings of Jennifer Bartlett, will be published in 2010.

AT: Is there a connecting thread between Yves Klein, Denes, and Bartlett?  I’m curious about why you chose to work with those artists.

KO: I do have a predilection for artists whose work has a certain numinous or spiritual character, such as the work of Wolfgang Laib, Yves Klein, James Lee Byars. Currently I am preparing two monographic survey shows for the Parrish Art Museum: Rackstraw Downes (2010) and Jennifer Bartlett (2011)

AT: I can certainly see how Denes is different from other artists, but how would you differentiate her from other Eco artists, or artists working with Green motives?

KO: I don’t like the term “Eco artists.” I don’t define artist by their political convictions. Agnes Denes happens to work with environmental issues in some of her work, but this does not define her art. Her work is much more than that. Art needs to be both ethical and aesthetical. If it is too ethical, it becomes political propaganda. If it is too aesthetical, it becomes decorative. There are many examples of both.

What defines true works of art is that they have found a perfect balance between the ethical and the aesthetical; they transcend simplistic messages and provide multiple layers of meaning.

It is also important not to confuse an artist’s writings and other public statements with her work. In her writings, Denes is much more political and environmental; it is one aspect of her personality and her work, but it should not be reduced to that.
AT: It really is a difficult thing, for me at least, to understand when the balance between ethics and aesthetics has shifted too much to one side. Today, this is certainly the something to be aware of.  Your response actually leads me further down to one of the questions I planned to ask later:

Q:  I’m trying to make sense of a few big shows in NY this past year.  One was EXIT Art’s promotion of S.E.A. (Social Environmental Aesthetics) which was meant to provide this forum between artists and scientists.  A similar arena has also been created through EcoARTSpace.  In light of your previous response, how do you feel about these shows?

KO: I have to admit that I consider myself somewhat of a modernist conservative, or shall I say, idealist, in that I believe in the autonomy of art above all. That is why I feel that the aesthetical as well as the ethical component of a work of art needs to be considered equally. I have nothing against political activism, but I believe that it should not play a leading role, or become the most significant layer, in a work of art. If there is a balance between the ethical and the aesthetical, then art can actually be more powerful than a political message. All art has the power to change the world, but it should do so quietly, by addressing or reflecting our deepest fears and the existential questions of the Human Condition.

I always bring up the example of Richard Serra’s contribution to the 2006 Whitney Biennial, a work that depicted an image from Abu Ghraib and the words “Stop Bush.” I found Serra’s decision to produce a work of political propaganda disappointing. While I agreed with its message, I think he should have instead written an editorial for the New York Times that would most likely have been more effective.

I don’t find it particularly useful to organize exhibitions with themes that narrow down an artist’s work to a specific aspect, be it historical, conceptual, or political. Thus I would never curate an exhibition of “Eco-art” or the likes. If I were an artist, I would also never participate in such an exhibition, for the same reason, unless that is all my work is about, but that would be sad, indeed.

2 Responses

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  1. hana said, on February 10, 2009 at 12:44 AM

    this is an awesome interview! very insightful… especially as a fan of denes’ work. i look forward to more wonderful interviews to come 🙂

  2. […] by audreyktran on March 24th, 2009         What I am about to post has already been coming out in little ways on this blog, but it’s important enough to note formally in a post of its own. […]

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