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The Premise: Data and Information / On Josef Achrer’s new works

Lü Peng

Beijing, as Josef Achrer describes to his friends or how he sees it in photographs, is a city with a boundless spirit offering experiences that are so different than Europe; it is a stream exploding with information, a world wrapped in data not unlike the computer game Tron.

Before he visited Beijing, Josef Achrer looked at China only through his friends’ paintings and camera. And later also through signs in the metro, which he used to paint his “maps” bearing his imaginary Chinese symbolism. Thus he truly brought people (and the Chinese public) something new and interesting that differs from their immediate reality. In this phase, he created most of his works connected with “travelling” and “maps”.

But Beijing, in its mysterious stories and in how he experienced it, as a city of international importance, shook the artist. With its history and monumental political and cultural influence on China, Beijing was initially the inspiration for his thoughts on Dataism.

Dataism appeared in my head in the autumn of 2013, when I found myself in Beijing, a city filled with contrasts, energy, and RGB colours. This is where I started to work on a series with the working title “DATA”. In China as well as in our Western world, the difference between data and information can still be felt, as any giant socio-economic machine can be kept powerful simply thanks to “properly served” information. But at the same time, one can sense that society has an almost tangible hunger for data, but this hunger is quelled only through a constant supply of information. (Josef Achrer: “Dataism and the Infomanic Society”)

Achrer thus holds certain misgivings about this huge, binary data-information structure. These misgivings contain a dose of subversion and ultimateness – in terms of yesterday’s and today’s knowledge, what is the actual foundation of this structure? The present world was usually described by a contradictory, yet unifying vocabulary of the complicated nature of the relationship of “material and spirit”; later, sociological constructivism became the medium for explaining this world. Josef Achrer believes that these are misleading words, as “information” today is merely one form of expressing “data” and it contains manipulation, approval, amendments, archives and disregard. The artist does not at all try to quickly untangle these knots. In his Dataist works that followed after 2013, Josef Achrer again used his symbolism and separated the elements of the picture into two categories. Although he does not emphasise them at all, one can find clues to understanding them.  The part with elements of gradual colour change is a contemplation on RGB and CMYK information systems. Another part is the communication of the existence of “information” – the lines used for the borders and the colour section. Josef Achrer mixes this duality, often in a very unique way. This is precisely the method he uses in this oeuvre. In the end, however, one can also detect his  following feeling from the symbols: paradoxically, this duality is difficult to separate, and sometimes it is thus naturally unifying, as if it would be the only longitude.

Under a flat surface, Josef Achrer’s work has fluorescent colour projected on the wall, which is not a very rare method. But it is important to note that the fluorescent colour is closely connected with his message. Fluorescence brings the flatness of the work to life, bringing the viewer’s attention to the existence materiality and questions associated with it: how do information and data construct the materiality we see? To how great an extent has material been violated? Josef Achrer deals with all of these questions.

Josef Achrer’s most interesting Dataist works are associated with bends and turns. The black cane-shaped turn, for example, has its own version in a curved line as well as another very similar one, but with a short segment of small turns. When you look at both at the same time, the effect is surprising. Most of all, Josef Achrer perhaps believes that there is a reflective relationship between information, data and material. But one must not completely trust these reflections. When you see that the twisted object is exactly the same as the untwisted reflection (all are projected with the same RGB), you understand his idea: information, data and material are in a relationship that is not necessarily 1:1 symmetry. Which also means that in all probability, we are unable to build or construct information from data and thus grasp material. In fact, all of the gigantic conglomerates that we accept are built on less than entirely stable foundations with the inner failings our mind grants them.   

The skyrocketing quantity of data lends urgency to the artist’s topic. Social networks chaotically take the direction indicated by information arising from millions of “laborious” little clicks. In the artist’s description, this is information and data transferred layer by layer, in the end forming a disjointed logical contradiction that consumers further expedite every single day. In the artist’s statement, it is described as follows:

I think that contemporary society succumbs to the magic of tiny personal data, placing exaggerated importance on them. With enormous speed it creates, stores and consumes them, thus creating a parallel reality in which it leaves the imprint of something seemingly permanent, a sort of personal trace that replaces the absence of the real traces of our actions. (Josef Achrer: “Dataism and the Infomanic Society”)

And now we can return to the concept of “abstract art” from art history and Josef Achrer – i.e., to the question of why viewers should see what Josef Achrer is offering them as an abstract work. An aesthetic view does not provide a gauge for this, as the questions Josef Achrer is addressing, analysing and constructing are not problems of aesthetics per se, but are the premise of the artist’s view: What are we actually saying?

In the course of its discovery of the world, humanity has constantly had misgivings about the world. Methodologies for the premises, analyses, and even solutions for questions ceaselessly arise and bring unexpected results. Hence, as one reads in the artist’s declaration on Dataism, Achrer addresses the questions that humankind faces while using traditional materials. Josef Achrer has thus embraced one of the most fundamental qualities of art: the existence of art as an opinion, not a language (often also called “form”): During the Renaissance, perspective was an opinion; Titian’s opinion was colour; Gustav Coupert’s opinion was “authenticity”; the Impressionists’ opinion was light. Beuys’ “butter” is also an opinion. “Opinion” is thus the premise for artists from various periods. The thing we call the history of art is composed of these. One can therefore understand why, with their symbolism and graphic symbols, quotes, collages, copies – even those where not even a hair has been changed – became legal tools in exhibition spaces, recognised by art history in the early second half of the 20th century. This also explains very well why Josef Achrer’s works and the painterly way in which he grasped the foundations of data and information have such historical self-assurance.

It is clear to me that it must be very complicated to achieve a movement in which new data would be created free of acquired experiences. But in a manner of speaking, this is about the calm and concentration of a visionary. And in painting, that is perhaps what is most important.

Saturday, 5 March 2016

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