The Frankfurter Kunstverein has invited Yves Netzhammer, Theo Jansen, and Takayuki Todo to present a selection of their works in solo shows, under the shared thematic title “Empathic Systems.”
The Frankfurter Kunstverein presents a survey of works by Swiss artist Yves Netzhammer from the last ten years. Netzhammer’s artistic oeuvre represents the examination of the central issues of being human in the digital age.
By the early 2000s, Netzhammer had already placed key questions at the center of his artistic research that sought the breaking points people encounter in dealing with the world today. The exhibition will showcase a specific selection of significant works from Netzhammer’s formal repertoire, with a focus on questions concerning the nature of human emotions and existential experiences.
Netzhammer’s work is not interested in realistic representations of the world, but rather seeks to analyze the essence of human action on the basis of image studies. The protagonists of Netzhammer’s works are reduced to the essential features of the human figure and are reminiscent of mannequins and anatomical models. The reduced visual worlds initially seem like experimental arrangements. He transforms his characters into the immaterial of digitally generated drawings. His figures forgo individual personality traits and thus, as archetypal human figures, represent the essence of existence.
The works dispense with words and text, they tell stories in scenes that skillfully trace an arc by stringing together fragments over the duration of the animations. Netzhammer translates emotional landscapes into a visual language that explores the fragile dividing line between the inner and outer world. His figures act in recurring sequences that create meaning in the succession of physical repetitions. Netzhammer deliberately reduces the visual repertoire to the essential: he works in primary colors with stylized forms, implied empty spaces, and processes in which the temporal dimension remains vague.
The artist deliberately refrains from giving his figures any individual traits, so that it is never about the portrait of a person, but rather general human characteristics. The figures have no faces, no eyes, and no facial expressions, they do not speak. It is not their expressions to which the observer could attribute emotion; it is their actions and gesticular physical formulations. Performed physically, these become precise depictions of indications of inner states, producing an immediate recognition of intentions and emotional landscapes.
The power of Netzhammer’s works arises from the transfer of meaning. He translates studies and observations of the real into new emotional contexts, rendered in image compositions. He creates his own individual visual language through repetitive actions, elements, and fragments of meaning that his characters act out. This results in a meta-semantics of physical expression. The interpretation of physical movement is a prototype of interpersonal communication that constitutes the human essence with an archaic immediacy. Netzhammer’s figures build on this corporeality. He animates them on the computer, synthetically recreates actions and movements, studies and recognizes sequences of motor-based expression, and uses them to construct his humanoids.
Netzhammer’s works address the viewer on this physical level. The empathic relationship with the animated characters is based on a reflection of physical sensation. This results in the viewer’s recognition of the figures’ gestures. We associate emotions with these gestures, despite their being formulated differently, and their ambivalence.
The body of the figures is a recurrent material that plays a central role in Netzhammer’s work. The boundary between interior and exterior is vulnerable and open. The smooth digital surfaces of the bodies are opened up. They produce an exchange of colors, things that create metaphorical associations. The images traverse a fine border where brutality and gentleness permeate and transpose each other in the details of the work.
Netzhammer’s animated films are always amplified by an acoustic level. Sound artist Bernd Schurer is Netzhammer’s kindred counterpart, who, with minimalistic soundscapes, manages to anchor the pictures for the viewer on an emotional level. In an analogy to Netzhammer’s visual worlds, Schurer also alternates between gentleness and cutting sounds, silence and acoustic sequences, which enhance the atmosphere of the visual worlds, sometimes melodically, sometimes as noise.
Netzhammer’s works address the viewer’s capacity for empathy. Empathy is a feeling of the temporary dissolution of the boundary between the self and others. A state of empathizing with the inner worlds of a being that is not oneself, and whose existential condition can momentarily become one’s own. In the act of silent observation, this empathic feeling can achieve a changing self-perception through emotional compassion, a capacity for resonance with the other person. Netzhammer forms and merges one image into the next, creating new autonomous worlds and making new contexts legible. He draws general and universal metaphors of existential perception. Anyone who engages with them can enter into this new digital and symbolic reality, and recognize or find something lying dormant in the secrecy of their own existence that tells of the fragility of human existence.
The exhibition brings together a selection of Netzhammer’s digitally animated films from various creative periods. Among them is one of his main works, “Die Subjektivierung der Wiederholung“ (The Subjectivisation of Repetition). It was part of the comprehensive installation that he designed for the Swiss Pavilion at the 2007 Venice Biennale. All of Netzhammer’s fundamental artistic features that characterize his work can be found in the 42-minute piece: interlocking motifs that repeat themselves, change, and reappear in fragments in order to merge and form new constellations of meaning, and visually render diffuse emotions in the search for new dimensions of sensibility.
His latest five-channel work “Biografische Versprecher” (Biographical Slips) transfers the digital imagery of computer animations into a spatial expansion. The projected images are reflected in numerous transparent surfaces and create a visual echo of their own reflections. Netzhammer translates elements of the humanoid figures and their actions into the material world of kinetic sculptures that operate in the space. Assemblages of objects, reminiscent of puppets’ body parts, arms and legs, are moved, pulled, and pushed by mechanical constructions on the surfaces of their sculptural bases. Compressors control the drive. This results in scraping noises, jerky movements that wear out the delicate objects over time and slowly destroy them. These are unique pieces that the artist has revived up for the exhibition at the Frankfurter Kunstverein and reworked for this specific location.
Another important focus of the exhibition is the presentation of Netzhammer’s comprehensive graphic oeuvre. Netzhammer draws exclusively on the computer. For the Frankfurter Kunstverein, the artist has chosen a selection of outline drawings that clearly demonstrate the principle of reduction and pictorial thinking in a concentrated manner. Starting from the two-dimensional drawings, the selection of works shows Netzhammer’s expansion into the three-dimensionality of the graphic line. Netzhammer transposes this onto the “Vororte der Körper” (Peripheries of Bodies) in the materiality of black metal wires. As outlines, these wires carve into the emptiness of the space. Like a trace, they point to absence in space. Netzhammer extends this step from drawing to object in a third group of works in which materiality now asserts itself in the space: “Adressen unmöglicher Orte“ (Adresses of Impossible Places). A chair is suspended in the moment of breaking, temporally fixed in the movement of falling, connected to the wall by red threads. These are like the red lines of a perspective drop shadow. Their ends meet like points on the depiction of a controlled color explosion.