Published in: Stefan Burger, Sehr, sehr dünne Suppe, Christoph Merian Verlag, Basel 2010.
Stirrings Still. Doing something. Not doing it. Omitting to do it and at the same time wondering how it would be to do it, and thinking of having done the same thing often. Samuel Beckett’s last work reads like an allegory of Stefan Burger’s exhibitions, in that it describes the convergence of different times and decision-making processes.
“One night as he sat at his table head on hands he saw himself rise and go. One night or day. For when his own light went out he was not left in the dark. Light of a kind came from the one high window. Under it still the stool on which till he could or would no more he used to mount to see the sky. Why he did not crane out to see what lay beneath was perhaps because the window was not made to open or because he could or would not open it. Perhaps he knew only too well what lay beneath and did not wish to see it again.”
Even within a single sentence, Beckett can weave a temporal tapestry of possibilities from the warp and weft of grammar, shot through with subjunctive, past and present. For a long time, the narrator leaves us in the dark as to whether the protagonist, mulling over the pros and cons of taking action, will actually step out of his house at all. In the end, he finds himself in a field of grass cropped short by flocks and herds, where the brief narrative comes to a close. In spite of the description of a sparsely furnished interior, there are various aids and props on hand, such as a stool from which to look out of the window. Whether the decision not to climb up and open the window is based on some physical inadequacy or on free will remains a moot point. The freedom not to do something is one of the fundamental liberties that can be found in Beckett’s works, no matter how apocalyptic they may be.
The French philosopher Alain Badiou, in On Beckett, has noted precisely this condition of freedom, albeit minimal, under given circumstances, in contrast to the widespread perception of his writings as gloomy and despairing. Badiou sees the scenes in Beckett’s writings as experiments in doubt, but by no means as literally hopeless situations. He relates this not only to the physical and psychological state of the protagonists, but also, and above all, to the situation of the language itself: inverting the words of a dialogue until they are devoid of all certainty.
Was he then now to press on regardless now in one direction and now in another or on the other hand stir no more as the case might be that is as that missing word might be which if to warn such as sad or bad for example then of course in spite of all the one and if the reverse then of course the other that is stir no more..
There are fundamental doubts as to the direction in which to “press on”. The characterisation of this occurrence is subjected to a language experiment in which the terms that describe certain moods – “sad” or “bad” – can influence the actions of the protagonists. That goes even as far as the implied inertia of the main character: “stir no more”.
The notion of absolute inertia that is repeatedly considered in Beckett’s writings and plays is actually enacted in John Cage’s 4’3” in which, in 1952, the young pianist David Tudor sat down at the piano before an audience eagerly awaiting the premiere of this piece and proceeded to perform not-doing-something. For each of the three movements of the composition, Tudor opened the lid of the piano and then left the keyboard untouched for a certain time. What had utterly baffled the audience at the time was later adopted by Stefan Burger in 2009 for his film 4’33”(Dormicum I.V.), without the audience. After taking a large dose of the sedative Dormicum, Burger extends 4’33’’ to seven-and-a-half minutes. At first, it looks like a fairly conventional re-run of this now famous composition: the artist walks on stage dressed in shirt and trousers and goes to the black grand piano. He opens the score and lifts the lid of the keyboard. First movement. Occasionally he glances at the watch that is lying there. His body bows towards the keyboard and he seems to find it increasingly difficult even to keep his balance. The lid is closed and re-opened. During the second movement, his head almost touches the keys, momentarily jeopardising the conceptually predetermined silence. Suddenly, a long wooden pole appears from one side and prods the sedated artist so that he sits up like a concert pianist again. The tip of this instrument of discipline is padded with a soft fabric. Evidently, the film crew had to intervene so that the planned silence would not be interrupted by physical instability. Under the influence of Dormicum, Cage’s notion of silence as being, essentially “giving up intention” is gradually extended. Two invisible, but highly effective agents thus create a construct to underpin this ageing icon of conceptual music: a strong sedative and the elongated arm of the film crew. Dormicum, ideal as it may be for “giving up intention”, in many ways jeopardises the conventions of performance by over-fulfilling the conceptual purpose.
Burger questions the sovereignty of art – in the sense of a largely independent aesthetic value system – as well as its all too quiet incorporation into the service economy. His works neither simply highlight the conditions of the present art system and its exhibition venues, nor do they, pragmatically, merely acknowledge them as the prerequisite for their existence. The intricate web of reciprocal dependencies and divergently operating co-authors is not only conceived in terms of an abstract conceptual system, but it is also explored in terms of its potential for human action within a complex relational network. To the philosopher Arthur C. Danto, it seemed that the institutional critique and conceptual art of the 1960s and 1970s had embraced text and context so enthusiastically and had strayed so far from the human frame of reference that art actually appeared to have converged with philosophy. In Danto’s view, not only was art discussed in conceptual terms, but art itself was being created in speech acts and rhetorical contexts. It is quite clear what is at stake here: the legitimisation of art in relation to the (physical) experiences of human existence and its own aesthetic history.
Two photographs from the early 1950s show the Kunsthaus Glarus shortly after it was built: a simple structure comprising two wings, with a distinctive pitched roof made entirely of glass. With natural light falling in from above, the two sky-lit rooms have no windows at all on any side, which means that they are completely sheltered from the influence of the immediate surroundings. Photographs found in the archives of the Kunsthaus document the building’s versatility in adapting to the prevailing weather conditions: on each of the gable ends there is a window that can be opened by means of a pulley mechanism. Some sixty years later, Stefan Burger has installed both external views of the Kunsthaus, available as postcards, in the sky-lit upper room. Auf/Zu (Open/Closed) (2010) does not simply make a laconic reference to the potential permeability of the structural shell; using a system of pulleys and wires, the artist extends the purely functional aspect of the gable windows by incorporating it into the actual exhibition space. The distinctive mechanical components now stand out against the white wall directly alongside the framed found photographic pieces.
Some kind of manual for the enthusiastic museum-goer? Indeed it is. Burger offers the audience a possibility for action that reveals a carefully hidden structure for the maintenance of climate control. The air circulation between the outer glazing and the inner skylight on the glass-roofed upper floor can now be regulated from inside the exhibition space. On setting the mechanism in motion, a squeaky sound fills the resonant chamber of the Kunsthaus and passes through several boundaries between the glass membrane, the white cube and the non-public areas reserved for technical and administrative work. In this way, the mechanical aspect of the institution emerges as a component part of its artistic preconditions. Hidden within the layers of the architectural shell, it is crucial to the visibility and delimitation of the artworks within the white exhibition space. The controversial social relevance and the artistic indignation at these institutional conventions are nonetheless mild by comparison with the early 1970s. Today, the illusionary powers of the white cell are appreciated, as are the socially critical debates about their potential for exclusion and economic over-valuation.
Given a genealogy of institutional critique that now stretches back some forty years, Burger’s works do not aim for the kind of surprise effect elicited by, say, Robert Barry’s closed white gallery spaces, Hans Haake’s investigative journalism or Louise Lawler’s photographs of art-as-interiors. The reason that the finger-pointing at the artistic enlightenment in the 1960s and 1970s triggered such heated debate was because it was part of the very body it was criticising in the first place. Burger’s frame of reference is based on precisely that figure of a finger pointing at its own hand while simultaneously being an integral part of the same organic system.
Instead of merely revealing hidden views and values, what is on offer here is aid and support – as a feat of engineering, so to speak – for the operational apparatus that drives the art system. In this, it refers to the circumstances of the everyday institutional operations on which, as a rule, artists have no influence, but which nevertheless play an important role in the conditions of their work. Take, for example, the floor cleaning at the Kunsthaus, Zürich: like any interior space that is regularly used, dirt, dust, and in some cases the residue of artworks all leave their mark. Untitled (Gates of Hell – Wastewater Use) (2008) channels rainwater flowing down Rodin’s famous sculpture (Gates of Hell, 1880–1917) near the museum entrance into the cleaning cycle of the museum: a blue plastic vat set on the pedestal collects the water from a customised drainage pipe that Burger has installed in the bronze sculpture. Each Thursday, a co-worker empties the vat of rainwater into several cleaning buckets and uses it to wash away the oily residues left on the Kunsthaus floor by Joseph Beuys’ Olivestone (1984, installed at the Kunsthaus Zürich in 1992). In this way, Burger discreetly provides possibilities for action that dovetail with the processes involved in maintaining the structure of the museum’s everyday functions. The decision as to how this is actually implemented is generally delegated to a third party – be it a mechanical or physical system, audience members or even employees of one of the institutions involved. Beyond all the rhetoric of inclusion and community that is so often touted in current press releases as “participation”, Burger’s works communicate neither an explicit instruction for use nor any obligation to take action.
There is every possibility that this complex and painstakingly prepared act of integration into institutional conventions will simply be omitted. And it is not always entirely clear what the intended act consists of, nor whether the act was meant to occur at some particular point in time that has already passed. The props in the large photographic mural, Dress Rehearsal of Those who Stayed Away with Those who have Already Left (Kunstmuseum Stuttgart, 2009), seem a little out of place: rolls of cut-price carpet, an almost empty table and a few pieces of wall with different surface finishes give little indication of whether the work has been abandoned due to adverse circumstances, whether it is a work in progress by an artist trying out a museum-sized format or whether we, the audience, have simply arrived too late. Everywhere, there are photographic images of things that either do not yet, or no longer quite, represent what their name once suggested, seemingly waiting to be used by the absent protagonists specified in the title. The only humanoid to be seen is a doll with a hard hat on a ladder. The historical reality of the photographic act – the presence of a past moment – meets the temporal structure of the act of exhibiting: past and future acts are suspended in the moment of presentation within the gallery context. So it is almost impossible to determine whether we have arrived too early, too late or just at the right time in relation to what is portrayed or merely proposed as a potential act. The result is a temporal state of exception that can only be rendered even more complex by the simultaneous act of the audience or the museum staff. There is a lingering sense of uncertainty at encountering a work at the wrong moment. Perhaps those who have stayed away, those who have left, or the institution itself, have omitted to perform some act that would have completed the work.
 Samuel Beckett, Stirrings Still, 1989
 Alain Badiou, On Beckett, tr. Alberto Toscano, Manchester 2003 (first published as L’increvable désir, Paris 1995).
 Samuel Beckett, Stirrings Still (see note 1)
 In Richard Kostelanetz, Conversing with Cage, New York 2003 (1987), p. 198.
 Alexander García Düttmann (in Kunstende. Drei ästhetische Studien, Frankfurt 2000) addresses Arthur C. Danto’s position on “art after art” and the “end of art” in the latter’s critique of the relationship between philosophy and art in The Philosophical Disenfranchisement of Art (New York 1986) and “Mark Tansey: The Picture within the Picture” (in Mark Tansey: Visions and Revisions, New York 1992). According to Düttmann, a “silent animosity to art” turns Danto’s view of a post-historical art into a domination of art by philosophy while at the same time relegating art to the very role (groundless but commodity-driven) in capitalist society that Adorno and Horkheimer railed against so vehemently in their Dialectic of the Enlightenment.
 Originally created in 1984 for the Castello de Rivoli near Turin, the Olivestone was installed in the Kunsthaus Zürich in 1992 by curator Harald Szeemann following a change of ownership. In the case of this formerly site-specific work, the change of location could also be equated with a change of authorship. Riet de Leeuw discusses the reconstruction of Olivestone in her essay “The Precarious Reconstruction of Installations” (in I. J. Hummelen/D. Sillé [eds.], Modern Art: Who Cares?, Amsterdam 1999, pp. 212–221).