Back from the Future
They are orange, red, bright green, turquoise, bright blue, or yellow, as well as black-and-white or silver. Some are small with a circumference of roughly 50 cm, so that you can never fully grasp them with your hands, while others are large with a circumference of up to ten metres. They simply lie there, like glacial erratics. A glacial erratic is a very large stone, usually lying alone, which was transported by glaciers during the ice ages and deposited in its present location. When the ice melts and the glacier retreats, the erratics are left behind. They lie in large parks, gardens, on university campuses, in entrances or in gallery spaces, on large shelves, on desks, and in living rooms. They occasionally lie alone, and at other times in groups.
The artist Wilhelm Mundt titles them all trashstone, referring both to the technique of their creation and to the fascinating inner life of the sculptures. He sweeps out his studio, clearing it of rubbish, and bundles all these inorganic remnants together. Instead of throwing it all away, old foam works, sculptures that he no longer wants to remember, accumulated remnants of his work in the studio, perhaps a drinking cup used over the years, or remnants of prototypes are bundled together. Occasionally, as Wilhelm Mundt revealed in an interview from 2016, he also processes private things, such as his children’s old bicycles. The well-known statement ‘you only see what you know’ is reinforced here in a special way: Familiar with this knowledge, one quickly imagines a vital ‘life of its own’ of the things in the stones.
The material collected in the studio is wrapped with adhesive tape, foils, and plastic reinforced with fibreglass. The lump created by bundling the objects together is coated several times, usually with dyed polyester. Several variously coloured layers, one on top of the other, then create the outer form. In a complex grinding process, the special shiny surface structure is created. The built-up layers, which can certainly be compared associatively with layers of rock, are then processed by the artist using a grinding technique, so that it is possible for him to once again expose deeper, otherwise invisible layers. In most cases, this is how the two-toned or multi-coloured nature of the works is created. If you look into the next layer of the lump in some places, you might see a layer of paint underneath, or – as in stone number 518 – you see aluminium foil; a small glimpse of what is inside is thus granted.
A Storehouse of Memory
The historians Aleida and Jan Assmann divide culture into a positive and a negative storehouse: In the positive storehouse is what is visibly present, while the negative storehouse preserves what has been forgotten. This model implies above all that nothing is completely forgotten but is preserved in the storehouse of memory. Wilhelm Mundt’s stones are storehouses in this sense of the term. There is an inside and an outside of the everyday world of culture. Formally, one is pointed to the inside by the possibility of looking at the next layers and can thus divine the forgotten world.
In a conversation in the artist’s studio in 2021, Mundt described the strenuous work on the object. The building up, the grinding down, and the physical movement ultimately account for the impressive form. He described his finding the self-evident form for the inside. His chosen technique only allows for a certain degree of subjectivity. He seems to be more of a handmaiden of his own self-developed system. Like an alchemist, he builds up and then removes layers of memory. He enjoys working with plastics that he can process himself. Only the aluminium objects are ultimately entrusted to a foundry to give these stones the final layer. All the lumps have a reflective surface, so that the surrounding space is reflected in them. The aluminium lumps also reflect their surroundings – like mirrors – and as a result almost disappear themselves.
More recent lumps have almost delicate lines, drawings on the uppermost (skin) layer. They infer that the form has guided the artist’s hand; they flow with the plastic form, not against it. Delicate and sensitive lines wander across the surface.
Due to the developed technique and the material, Mundt’s objects almost defy any ageing process. Like a meteorite, the lump seems to have come mysteriously from another time and place. For humans, meteorites come from unimaginably far away, both in space and time. They form in the solar system, and the time between their separation from the parent body and their impact on the Earth’s surface is several million years. They thus provide direct access to research into the formation of the solar system. The fall through the Earth’s atmosphere takes only a few seconds, so that the interior of a meteorite does not heat up before it reaches the ground. Incidentally, experts differentiate between the inner and outer structure of a meteorite, similar to the contemplation of a trashstone. Just as the fall of meteorites onto the Earth are observed every year, so too will the lumps remain, even when humans no longer exist.
On the one hand, Mundt’s stones are singular, mysterious beauties from another world, but on the other hand serial, since every stone is numbered. The first stone bears the number 001, i.e. three digits are provided in the numbering system, and the respective number is found on the outer layer of the stone, similar to a stamp. Each number is used only once. With this seriality of the symbol of the industrial age, the artist reveals himself to be completely committed to modern thinking. In the studio conversation in 2021, he explained that the last of all the stones would consequently bear the number 999. As a young artist conceiving the system, he did not assume that he would ever reach the realm of the three digits, but in the meantime the finiteness of the three-digit system becomes conceivable. He is frequently asked how many more stones he will create. For him, this is not only the question of the end of his series of works, but also indirectly the question of his own end, namely death.
All art-historical reflections on Wilhelm Mundt’s oeuvre, be it the well-known ‘Appenzell Interpretation’ of 2007, in which the then museum director of the Kunsthalle Ziegelhütte in Appenzell interpreted the lying stones as herds of a motley society, or the frequent attempts to talk about glacial erratics or meteorites in the context of the work, result from a basic conviction that Mundt’s work finds itself in an ambivalent situation between nature and culture. The hand of the artist deliberately largely underplayed, with the accruing objects processed into a sculpture through an almost mechanical construction, Mundt’s lumps seem to represent what we have been experiencing for some years in the geological age of the so-called Anthropocene.
As we have learned – and scientists of all disciplines seem to agree on this – we are currently living in the Anthropocene. The term, coined by Paul Crutzen, signals a turning point in that humans are shaping their own environment in many ways. As a result, we are radically bidding farewell to our earlier relationship with nature, over which we believed we had little influence, and are increasingly confronted with an environment that is our own product. There is still debate about when the Anthropocene began. Attention is drawn to the fact that the impact of humans on their living environment has accelerated and intensified to such an extent that it is possible to speak of a serious change in the Earth since roughly the middle of the twentieth century. July 16, 1945, the day of the first atomic bomb explosion, could be declared the beginning of the Anthropocene, while others call for the ‘era of humankind’ to begin with the start of the Industrial Revolution.
The characteristic feature of the present is not only the disappearance of nature, but the proliferation of hybrids that undermine the distinction between culture and nature. With Mundt, art – always valued as a cultural commodity – takes an ambivalent form here. When Vilém Flusser repeatedly spoke of computers remaining present on the Earth and communicating with each other at the end of humanity, one can figuratively associate that at this end of humanity the stones will exist permanently as hybrid objects distributed across the globe.
Who’s Afraid of the Black Hole? – The Photographic Work of Wilhelm Mundt
Wilhelm Mundt’s photographic works are a logical further development of his sculptural oeuvre. There are photographic images of selected the stones. In these photographs, each stone is depicted in its original size, and this is particularly important, showing that the reference to the original wants to be unambiguous. There are thus logically larger and smaller photographs. In terms of perspective and freedom from distortion, the photographic technique is certainly reminiscent of the apparent objectivity of the photographs of Bernd and Hilla Becher.
Ever since Roland Barthes’s dictum about photography in Camera Lucida has become a general consensus, we have accepted that photography is always ‘photography of the dead’. The photograph confirms past existence and past moments. The second the shutter release is pressed, the moment is gone, never to return as the same and doomed to vanish. Only the photographic image of the past exists as a memory. Photography is thus fundamentally related to death. Certainly aware of this cultural discourse, Wilhelm Mundt takes the next step in his photographic work: He cuts the object out of the picture and thus robs it of its existence. The creatures, which often seem cheerful because of their colourfulness, do not shed their outer shell, but rather exchange their identity-giving colourfulness for a deep black. A black hole is created, but the last traces of the lumps remain forever – such as, for example, their respective shadows, which signal to us that they have been there, as a formal last trace of an authentic existence. As the last evidence, the shadows have the colour of the stone that was originally there. Since the more recent findings of Stephen Hawking in the 1970s, most of us know – at least in layman’s terms – about ‘black holes’ that they have a strong gravitational pull. And thus, Mundt’s photographs manage to draw us into the image as well, and one almost tries to resist the power of the pull. Wilhelm Mundt’s photographs prove to be a requiem for his stones, a testamentary final greeting to each of them. (copyrightCordula Meier)
Wilhelm Mundt: strictly fussel, interview with Christiane Hoffmans (Düsseldorf 2016).
Cf. Aleida Assmann and Dietrich Harth (eds.), Mnemosyne. Formen und Funktion der kulturellen
Erinnerung (Frankfurt am Main 1991).
Wilhelm Mundt, conversation with Ulla Gansfort and Cordula Meier during a studio visit, Rommerskirchen, June 2021.
Roland Scotti, Kunsthalle Ziegelhütte, Appenzell, 2007.
Paul J. Crutzen: A Pioneer on Atmospheric Chemistry and Climate Change in the Anthropocene, ed. Paul J. Crutzen and Hans Günter Brauch (Heidelberg 2016).
Vilém Flusser, The Shape of Things: A Philosophy of Design, trans. Anthony Mathews (London 1999).
Roland Barthes, La chambre claire (Paris 1980). English: Camera Lucida. Reflections on Photography, trans. Richard Howard (London 2000).