26. May 2016

For Timm Ulrichs the distinction between life and art is obsolete. The portrait of a “Totalkünstler” (total artist) on SCHIRN MAGAZIN

By Eugen El

A young man with dark hair and spectacles, neatly dressed in the style of the day, is sitting on a chair enclosed in a glass case. 26 at the time, artist Timm Ulrichs was presenting himself at Patio, a Frankfurt studio-cum-gallery, in 1966 – a “first living artwork”.

One year earlier, a similar project of Ulrichs’ had come to nothing when the “Juryfreie Kunstausstellung” in Berlin turned Ulrichs’ “first living artwork” down at the last moment, subsequently supplying a grotesque, bureaucratic excuse. The affair calls to mind Gilbert & George’s 1970 “Singing Sculpture” and is considered the starting point for Ulrichs’ extensive oeuvre in which measuring his own person plays an important role. 

Ulrichs’ literal-mindedness 

For his “Autobiografisches Tagebuch vom 12.9.1972” (Autobiographical diary dated September 12, 1972) Ulrichs had his heart rate, the sound of his breathing and his brain activity recorded. The state of his health was, so to speak, reduced to the objectively measurable, to jumping lines. Any similarities with Minimal Art are unintentional. Here, Ulrichs counters the subjective work by the hand of a brilliant artist with concrete body data.

Timm Ulrichs, The End, 1981, image via tu-dortmund.de

Around 1963, Robert Morris took a similar approach with his “Brain Portrait”, nothing more or less than the graphic representation of the electrical activity in the artist’s brain. What we recognize here is Ulrichs’ literal-mindedness. When, for example, a work dating from 2010 is called “Wolf im Schafspelz – Schaf im Wolfspelz” (Wolf in sheep’s clothing – sheep in wolf’s clothing) what we are presented with is exact, three-dimensional replicas of a wolf wearing a sheep’s pelt and – you’ve guessed it! – a sheep wearing a wolf’s pelt. 

Ulrichs sees himself as a “total artist” 

In 1975, Ulrichs presented himself during the international art fair in Cologne, which today goes by the name of Art Cologne, decked out with a white cane and an armband identifying him as visually impaired. Around his neck he wore a sign reading “Ich kann keine Kunst mehr sehen!” (literally “I can’t see art any more” but an idiomatic phrase meaning “I can’t bear the sight of any more art”). This play on words and the double entendre inherent in this work are an integral part of Ulrichs’ oeuvre. “Eine Tautologie ist eine Tautologie ist eine Tautologie …” (a tautology is a tautology is a tautology) is the text on an LED ticker scrolling on into infinity.

Timm Ulrichs, Ich kann keine Kunst mehr sehen, image via blauegans.at

A gravestone produced although the artist is still alive and dating from 1969 bears the inscription “Denken Sie immer daran, mich zu vergessen!” (Always remember to forget to me!). Ulrichs sees himself as a “total artist”. He also repeatedly involves his body directly in his work. In 1981 he had the words “The End” tattooed onto his right eyelid. During the Olympic Games in Munich in 1972 the artist literally got himself into an outsized treadmill. This was accompanied by a sign reading “Ich absolviere täglich einen Marathonlauf – ‘auf der Stelle tretend’.” (I run a marathon every day – ‘running on the spot’.) Someone who automatically springs to mind in this context is Julius von Bismarck who, in 2015, spent art fair Art Basel in a constantly rotating round concrete shell. 

The inspection of self 

In 2004 Ulrichs undertook a journey of to his inner self. But what sounds like a romantic renunciation of the world turned out to be a very concrete procedure. The artist swallowed a capsule equipped with a tiny camera. This meant that it was possible to view everything from his oral cavity to his esophagus and his digestive tract on the computer screen. The artist talked about the “inspection of self”.

Timm Ulrichs, Denken Sie immer daran, mich zu vergessen!, 31.3.1940, Grabstein, 1969 (Detail), image via sculpture-network.org

Time and time again, Ulrichs focuses on the impossibility of a conventional attitude to self, always with a great deal of wry humor. Visitors to the exhibition ME were presented with a tarpaulin measuring 180 x 102 cm, which corresponds to 18360 cm². The tarpaulin was marked: “Timm Ulrichs' Körper-Oberfläche” / “18360 cm²” (Timm Ulrichs’ body surface / “18360 cm²”). The work, dating from 1971, is referred to as a self-portrait. It makes multiple references to the artist, whose whole body is present and, at the same time, absent. Ulrichs’ attitude is “What you see is what you get”. And although his body surface is displayed “exactly” this does not really provide any insights into the artist’s personality. 

These days, Ulrichs is not that young any more, in fact, he is more than 75 years old. At his studio in Hanover, where he also lives – at the end of the day, for him any distinction between art and life is obsolete! – he works on several projects simultaneously. All that remains is to hope that we are going to be seeing a lot more art from him in the future.

Timm Ulrichs, Self portrait (Körper-Kunst-Objekt), 1970/71, Timm Ulrichs / Courtesy Wentrup, Berlin