Michael Endlicher: Linguistic Turns

Regardless of the radical changes precipitated by the new media of photography, radio, and film – with their rich promise of mass accessibility – Vladimir Mayakovsky remained convinced that books addressing more limited, special interests would continue to have an effect as long as they addressed themselves to “producers rather than to consumers”. For Michael Endlicher, my own study „Wörter und Zahlen. Das Alphabet als Code“ (2000; Words and Numbers. The Alphabet as Code) fell into this category, was understood as an invitation further to pursue this idea and the enquiry associated with it. Where I had conducted an introvert investigation into the world of symbols and codes, into the elementary particles of writing, into the computability of meaning, he achieves his very own kind of transformation, a transformation that results in the creation of images. This opens new room for speculation.

By understanding the modern European alphabet in terms of a system that assigns each letter a numeric value according to its position within the alphabetic sequence (a=1, b=2, c=3 etc.), it not only becomes possible to calculate sums for individual or grouped words but one may also escape the lexical constraints imposed by a system which has the initial letter as its base. Instead, all letters in a group of signs are taken into account in a comprehensible manner. Unpredictable cross-references generate fresh stimuli and the emerging associations – forestalling the restrictive effect of the grammatical rule – raise questions about the mechanisms of understanding and preconceived notions regarding what does and what does not belong together. According to this method, there is a correspondence between such fundamental properties as wahr true (23+1+8+18=50) and heilig holy (8+5+9+12+9+7=50) a relationship reinforced by the  mathematically verifiable reference to Bilder images (50). However, words with an identical code, such as Krieg war (50), Lüge lie (50), the collective Wir we (50), Jubel jubilation (50), Flamme flame (50), Mord murder (50), Exil exile (50) soon explode the underlying suggestion of harmony. Such „co-incidences“ (not purely coincidental given that they result from known causes) are a product of the alphabet itself. Numbers are imbued with the faculty of speech.  [English words producing identical results include: bible (30), peace (30), day (30), bread (30) or: politics (103), dissonance (103), intrigue (103), capitalism (103), privilege (103)]

Leaving aside more farfetched analogies with the kabala, with Jewish, Persian, Arabic, Greek, Roman, and medieval traditions of encodement, with the methods of concrete poetry, or even with computer mentality, the issue brings to light a number of contemporary parallel currents untainted by any suspicion of esotericism and instead marked by an encouraging heterogeneity. The calculated poetry of Helmut Eisendle (1939-2003), for example, demonstrates his abiding interest in this idea, while a similar approach informs the images and texts of Stephan Krass (“Lichtbesen aus Blei. Gewichtete Gedichte”, Berlin 2004). For Barbara Frischmuth, too, the coded word-tables yielded “ideal raw data” for a nascent novel. Michael Endlicher, finally, perceives calculation as a means to first explore and then visualise the dimensions of the symbolic.

When one of his „Votivbilder“ (Votive Paintings) foregrounds the pivotal number, respectively the date “1492” and juxtaposes it with an inverted “1491” – when the Americas had not yet been discovered or properly penetrated the occidental mind – the eye-catching effect is countervailed by unfamiliar associations and apparently fixed points of reference can no longer be relied on unconditionally. When all is said and done, many things could have turned out quite differently. One need only look at the Chinese expeditionary armadas of Admiral Zheng He (a Muslim, incidentally) Although it is widely believed that by 1421 these fleets had covered great distances and may even have reached the coast of the American continent, the onset of the Chinese policy of isolation prevented them from having any further effect.

The pointedly smaller-scale „Entscheidungsbilder“ (Choice Paintings) and the „Moralspiegel“ (Moral Mirrors) offer a hint that either/or choices may be misleading. The works „Ich vergebe / Ich vergelte“ (I forgive/I take revenge) or „Ich suche / Ich finde“ (I search/ I find) expressly address these existential fundamentals. A text by Kandinsky with the simple title„und“ (And) goes into this matter in greater detail: „Whereas the 19th century was ruled by the either-or, the 20th century should devote its efforts to the and. There: separation, specialisation, endeavouring for clarity and a predictable world – here: juxtaposition, diversity, uncertainty, questions of coherence, the experiment of exchange, of overcoming the law of contradiction, synthesis, and ambivalence”. To the extent that such aspirations remain largely unfulfilled they have lost little of their relevance at the beginning of the 21st century. In a similar vein, Endlicher’s use of mirrors offers a scope for interpretation that goes far beyond the obvious reference to mindless grooming. Pilgrims, for instance, would use small hand mirrors to capture the forces emanating from relics; or one might even regard mirrors as a very rudimentary form of photography.  

In his „Kritikbilder“ (Critical Paintings), Michael Endlicher seeks to reinstate the textual art commentary in the painting adding yet another variation to the classic modern theme of the deliberately broken taboo (Picasso, Braque, the Futurists, Constructivists, Dada, Duchamp) as a means of negating the dichotomy between science and art, between the text and the formula on the one hand and painting and sculpture on the other. In a context whose presence and ongoing development also manifest itself in the script-installations of Jenny Holzer or Lawrence Weiner (e.g. at the anti-aircraft tower in the Esterhazy Park) and the coded painting of Brigitte Kowanz, Michael Endlicher pursues his own personal course. For instance by transforming an “advertising” text into a painting, simultaneously and ambivalently addressing the creative and the destructive forces behind the painting. The main message is one of businesslike soberness – nobody is being talked into anything. This is about work, about the importance of the materials. Each letter seems to have been crafted – painted, punched, impressed, etched – individually, and every single one is taken seriously.

In the „Dramenbleche“ (Metal Dramas), finally, the alphanumeric codes mentioned earlier are at the heart of the process. Unusual if traceable relationships – metaphors for science, theory, or relationships – are impressed and concentrated into pictures on sheet metal that resemble license plates. They reflect a process of searching, finding, comprehending. The drama is deliberate. More subtle results are only achieved by further reflection. Essentialist correlations such as „Hand hand – Bild image – Code code – 27“ suggest a form of civilisation programming, as do equations like „Gott god – Mensch man – Krise crisis – 62“ or „Moral moral – Anarchie anarchy – Glück luck – 59“. The striking equivalence of „Linguistik linguistics – Mitternacht midnight – Schuldgefühl remorse – 131“ also underlies the title of the catalogue and exhibition „Linguistic Turns“. Rather than suggesting a specific point of view, trend reversals of this sort serve to emphasise the fact that the analysis, assessment, and representation of reality requires a progressively more subtle and deliberately ambiguous approach. Writing, language, image all attract our distrust, as do popular adages like “everything is text” or that the world can be “deciphered”. The possibilities depend on expandable constellations: „Text text – Teufel devil – Poesie poetry – 69“. And while poetry offers an obvious opportunity in this context, the actual word Poesie poetry (69) has the same code-value as  Text text (69), or Prosa prose (69), or Formel formula (69). [English examples: „boy – gun – war – 42” or „girl – body – shame – 46”]

In the end, it is a matter of precision of perception, of attaining a rational grasp of certain hidden aspects that nevertheless allows one to keep an open mind. Among the directions indicated by these Linguistic Turns (215) Ordnungsbedürfnis need for order (215) and Bedeutungsreichtum meaningfulness (215) seem particularly well suited for future production and further enquiry. The ascending sequence from Raumbezogenheit spatial reference (169) via Spacial Turns (170) and Zeichensystem sign system (171) points at such concepts of artistic significance as Sprachlosigkeit speechlessness (172) and Wechselbeziehung interrelation (172).

Christian Reder: “Wörter und Zahlen. Das Alphabet als Code”. Vienna-New York 2000.
Wladimir Majakowski: “Werke”, ed. Leonhard Kossuth, Frankfurt am Main 1980, vol V.2., Publizistik. Aufsätze und Reden, p. 328, 299.
Gavin Menzies: “1421. Als China die Welt entdeckte” (London 2002), Munich 2003.
Wassily Kandinsky: “und” (1927). In: Kandinsky: “Essays über Kunst und Künstler”, Bern 1973, p. 97ff.

Christian Reder, 2005. Author, essayist, professor for art and knowledge transfer at the University of Applied Art, Vienna (www.christianreder.net.)