“As this child came forth to meet the abrupt forces of life, there grew within him a new awareness of a selfhood, and a breathless discovery that he had within himself a stature and wisdom that expanded and contracted even as do the shadows that are influenced by the sun and clouds.”
– Virginia M. Axline, Dibs: In Search of Self
It’s bizarre. Recently, I have been waking dream-like fantasies where I am trapped in a room, often the kitchen, horror-roaring voices assailing me, with no exit or escape feeling I’m about to be grabbed by invisible hands, and decide to jump, and dive into the kitchen floor, and go through the floor, which turns to water, and I’m underwater swimming, down my driveway, up my street, car passing over me, and up an access road to the highway, which is empty and, as I pop my head up on to road, turns to a whitewater, and I ride the water down the steep hill to a place called Midland, now lost beneath a flood. Dream over. It’s a repeating dream. And I’ve wondered if there is something wrong with me.
Somehow my disappearance from the scene in a dream relates to my recent reading and exploration of Frank Kunert’s latest book of ‘disruptive’ art photography, Carpe Diem. Like his previous books, Lifestyle (2018), Wonderland (2018), and Topsy Turvy World (2008), Kunert’s new book of images has a weird, almost undine, consciousness to it. Though each image implies the presence of humanity — staircases, furniture, place settings, off-ramps, springboards, etc. — there are no people. Replacing people are readers of the book who wear the image as a dream mask for however many moments they sit there perusing the photo. And the photo is of a carefully constructed 3D model of a set. You might recall the scaled world your weird uncle made in his garage where his model train ran through, tenderness in the details of the countryside, structures and the works of humans featured with humans themselves absented, a peaceable kingdom by the sea, if the king were autistic.
An interviewer in Carpe Diem, Peter Lindhorst, asks him about Kunert about his previous experience with scale models:
PL: When I was a child, I had a friend whose strict father sometimes allowed us into his sanctuary, the model train world he had built in the cellar, behind a thick steel door that was always locked. We weren’t allowed to touch anything. I was impressed, but the great seriousness with which he pursued his hobby also frightened me a little. How and when did you develop your passion for building models? Was there an earnest father who introduced you to the art of building worlds for model trains?
FK: I was never influenced by my parents in that way. Model trains never rolled through my childhood home. But I remember the kits for building houses, on a small scale, which at the time I enjoyed assembling. I was a rather quiet child, who often withdrew and worked away alone. Although I also played a lot with my brother and friends, I felt a strong need to dive into my own world.
This is not exactly Dibs, the little autistic boy, but there is something about Kunert’s work that seems as alienated and coded as that child’s work seemed to his therapist. Maybe it’s the lack of people represented to cue one in on the emotional response involved or expected. If I am to be the therapist reading this little world, I am, at first, lost. To judge by some of his imagery, such as “Live Broadcast,” this Dibs seems to be an outrageously provocative little Scheiss.
There’s one image in particular that holds my query and relates to my escape dream, which preceded my scan of Kunert’s image, “Thin Ice.” It depicts a small kitchen with a view of the canopies of some trees — and a hole in the floor, which is made of ice. We don’t know why the hole. But the cliche is: Buddy, you’re standing on thin ice. And as the cliche title of Kunert’s book suggests, Carpe Diem, because we are each standing on thin ice that could collapse beneath us at any moment. In this sense, the image represents a stilled life; a fall into the abyss.
Luminescent bio in the dark universe, taking itself for granted, then the crack in the floor and there’s no sign of humanity. It’s like Kunert has set off a neutron bomb that leaves structures intact but no people. Kunert is an existential terrorist. Seize him, or perish.
If we take a deeper dive into Carpe Diem’s cover image, “A Room with a View,” we get a glimpse of bourgeois ease, with a solitary empty chaise lounge in the living room facing an open wall with a view to the sky (and possibility). Next to the chaise lounge is a caddy with a battle of red wine and some books. An abstract expressionist smudge, the mass-produced kind you might find in a cheap hotel room, that is more mocking posture than actual art, is framed on the wall. In fact, the scene suggests a hotel experience, with the wine, and the folded towel, and the dated cabinet on top of which token white flowers poke out from a cheap white vase, and the wannabe pastel colors of the wall and ceilings. But the main focus is the diving board growing out of the foot of the vacated chaise lounge and the open air.
What happened? Did s/he go for a “swim” and not return? And was it a leap filled with levity or gravity? One wonders. Don’t you?
In another image, “Bumpety Bump, Rider,” Kunert places our framing outside what appears to be an elementary school, through the wide window of which we can see rudimentary drawings on the wall and a distorted globe and plant in the foreground. Outside there is a standard issue sand pit with a red bucket. But the focal point is a 13-rungs tall rocking horse looking out at the blue sky with clouds. Aside from the question, why? one wonders how does a kid up on this playground ride, as it would rock as s/he climbs? And is there something special to see at that height that could not be seen at ground level, which looks out at the same blue sky?
Me? I thought of D.H. Lawrence’s “Rocking Horse Winner.” But is Kunert that sly and subversive?
Kunert has made a career of such quiet provocations. In “Flying High” from Lifestyle, Kunert provides another whimsical glimpse of his arch humor at work, asking us to imagine a wheelchair assistant gliding up the stairs, right out the window, and high into the sky. Of course, if you lived in that gray and drab environment Kunert depicts, you might hope for such an installation to the sky. In “Outside Toilet” from Wonderland, Kunert sees the moon as a Scheißloch wherein one must imagine that outside dunny involves a trip to outer space. It’s as if Kunert’s thinking ahead to Jeff Bezos’s plans to colonize the moon. And in Topsy-Turvy World, Kunert’s earliest and darkest collection, we are presented with more confronting images, as well as the early stages of what will be a leit motif in his work — the diving board. With “Kids!” Kunert gives a visual for an old man’s cranky expression to an impish child we’ve all heard — “Why don’t you go play in traffic.” And in “Adventure Pool Complex” the artist seems to take the scheiss out of Frank Lloyd Wright by inviting visitors to climb up to a diving board and swan dive into a toilet bowl. Naturally, reader-response theorists tell us that we will each perform these images in our minds uniquely.
As fascinating as Kunert’s image-making is, the process he uses to create them is even more so, I reckon. He begins with a simple sketch of an idea. Then, he tells us, in an interview with Peter Lindhorst (included with Carpe Diem) what goes into making one of his images:
Now and again, a wild chaos reigns in my head. When it does, I would just as soon write “Closed due to overcrowding” on my forehead. Usually, however, I then decide to create some inner order: I treat myself to some rest, take a walk, give my thoughts free rein. The child and adult players in my head are allowed to play together.This results in chains of associations, and ideally in the first ideas, which I record in my sketchbook. Over the course of time, from these drafts fall into place, quite automatically, those that are in the running for my next photo project. That happens intuitively and is influenced by my experiences, observations, or memories, which ultimately provide the decisive “kick.” That tells me: now I can start building the model.
This is quite instructive. For Kunert’s work seems just what he says it is, a child and adult wrestling with an idea. And it is reminiscent of Nietzsche’s axiom about philosophizing where he suggests it should be approached with the seriousness of a child at play.
At first, Kunert’s images seem to be peculiar paintings. It takes a few moments to understand that they are constructed miniature sets under precise atmospheric lighting. That the artist went through the trouble of building these models to frame in a lens. He tells Lindhorst that his early teenaged love for photography, toodling around taking snaps of nature, grew into the pursuit of a career in photography. He got his university degree then sought out opportunities:
After graduating school, I decided in 1984 to do an apprenticeship in photography. In a studio for advertising and industrial photography, I got to know the techniques for a large-format camera and practiced presenting products in the artificial light of the studio. It was a task calling for a lot of skill and precision, and I learned to appreciate it during my apprenticeship.
These techniques have come in handy in cheating just the right atmosphere in his models, which are often bright, but not too bright, and sometimes foreshadowing, but never sinister. Kunert’s subjects seem to be ordinary people and his images are snapshots of the moment when they opt out — of their mediocrity, or their lives.
As for symbolism at the local level, as it were, Kunert admits to using certain model pieces to suggest a solution to the implicit problem presented in the model. Kunert tells Lindhorst:
[I]t’s certainly the case that my work is determined by themes related to the dangers of life and all its heights and depths. Hopes, desires, and fears are important motivators for me. Visual elements such as ladders, stairs, or springboards help me to symbolize the human striving for the greater, the higher, to overcome limits and the simultaneous fear of losing control and of uncertainty…I am trying to address the abrupt end of a happiness that was thought to be certain…Everything is ephemeral. The fall into the bottomless sometimes happens faster than we can or would like to imagine.
What the world needs now is more carpe diemists (day-seizers), Kunert is telling us. People willing to use their noodles and employ their scruples and follow their blissy doodles and remodel their drab lives. As Kunert puts it, “Life is a model construction site.”
I have been following developments in AI text to art lately, and even using apps to “translate” some of my text to images. Often there is a dreamlike quality not easy to wrap your head around, as if the app were developing a subconscious, taking a deep dive into the human psyche and mapping it and discovering its contours. In doing so, it seems to share something about how we ourselves build interior worlds. Without people. Without investment in the world’s surface meanings and negotiated and temporary reality. In this sense, Frank Kunert’s art is like Dibs in search of a self.
In 2021, Frank Kunert won the Heinrich Zille Caricature Prize, the silver medal of the Biennial Dimensional Salon in New York, and the German Photo Book Award in Silver. Zille a German illustrator, caricaturist, lithographer and photographer. Here is Kunert discussing his work and the Zille award with a German broadcaster (English subtitles):
Carpe Diem, TopsyTurvy World, Wunderland, and Lifestyle, are all published by Hatje Cantz. The images from these works can all be found at Kunert’s website.