What was and what is to come

Thomas Zitzwitz is dedicating his show to the Pleiades. The Pleiades are a cluster of stars whose disappearance heralds the arrival of spring, which is fitting given the timing of the exhibition, when the days are finally growing longer and lighter again and winter is on the retreat. The Pleiades are stars that promise more light.

This light plays an important role in the works presented here – 14 watercolours and 7 spray paintings – because they all have a special radiance. This is perhaps particularly apparent in the watercolours with their brilliant colours. They are like flowers opening to the sun, their buds unfurling and bursting into bloom. Zitzwitz actually painted them in the winter, during the first lockdown in early 2020, when life began to slide impudently into a pallid light, fading far too quickly, far too often. They are sunlit winter flowers, fleurs d’hiver, and the fact that he is showing them now could be seen as a promise that the long winter is finally over. Spring is coming.

This mystical quality connects the watercolours with the spray paintings and their labyrinthine transmutations of colours, volumes and textures. Like the gradients in the watercolours’ sometimes transparent, sometimes opaque pigments, they induce a combination of sensual stimuli and span a lucid surface that promises depth but is actually impenetrable – sheet lightning from ethereal regions of the sky and thus also from the future.

Future – this is also the theme under which the mythological figures, who the stars are named after, connect with art. According to legend, the Pleiades are the nymphs Alcyone, Sterope, Electra, Celaeno, Maia, Merope and Taygete, the daughters of Atlas and Pleione, from whom their name also derives. They coupled with gods and heroes. Orion pursued them and Zeus rescued them by placing them in the sky. From there, they have since heralded not only the start of spring, but also the season of navigation when seafarers know it is safe to set out on new voyages.

Yet the way in which we see a constellation of stars is closely connected to the way we understand art, or indeed, how we understand anything. Understanding something is quite different from recognising or identifying something as something. When we identify something as something, we claim it to be this or that. However, by doing so, we make a claim we cannot actually satisfy, because when I say, “That’s a pipe”, I am not actually recognising the thing in question, I am merely placing it in a certain category. The philosopher Theodor W. Adorno puts it this way: “Identity-thinking says what it [something] falls under, what it is an example or representative of, what it consequently is not itself. Identity-thinking distances itself farther and farther away from the identity of its object, the more relentlessly it tears at the latter’s body.”[i] In other words, every judgement about an individual thing that identifies this thing as something fails to identify this individuality. It makes a claim it cannot satisfy because of its structure.[ii]
The problem, of course, is that understanding usually occurs in sentences and our language is by nature identifying. We cannot speak or write in any other way. One way to avoid this dilemma could be to not identify what we are talking about, but to encircle it with our language – whether this is in an essay or a conversation. Because neither form aims to bring what is being discussed into a systematic unit. They leave the matter at hand unfinished. A certain residue remains, an area of vagueness that arises from the juxtaposition of different statements that do not entirely match, or are interlinked like the parts of an argument, “surrounding” rather than classifying the matter at hand. Walter Benjamin described this “surrounding” of a thing with words as constellations, thinking of clusters of stars like the Pleiades.[iii] Because when we discover a constellation in the sky, the eye connects certain stars with each other to form an image, which only emerges in this composition and only for the person who sees it. The process of understanding that occurs in linguistic constellations is also bound to those who are performing this process. This is more apparent in oral than in written constellations, because, as philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer puts it, the conversation “includes the foresight of the other with whom he shares assumptions and on whose understanding he is counting. The other person takes what is said as it is meant, i.e. he understands by supplementing and concretising what has been said and taking nothing literally in its abstract meaning.”[iv] “What comes out of [living] speech,” continues Gadamer, “is not the mere fixation of an intended meaning but a constantly changing attempt, or more precisely, a constantly recurring temptation, to engage with something and with someone. But that means exposing oneself”.[v]

If we consider these philosophical attempts at understanding in the context of Zitzwitz’s pictures, we soon realise that philosophy here is trying to compensate for the disadvantage language has compared to the picture. Because pictures like Zitzwitz’s articulate their meaning no differently to constellations, which present themselves differently to every gaze. Their meaning develops precisely in this surplus or vagueness that constellative speech must first establish or reveal. It is this that Zitzwitz’s meandering colour fields and fluid transitions demonstrate: it is a constellation of colours, areas and forms that allows each individual gaze to find its own individual meaning, but which eludes any form of linguistic description in a vagueness. Art philosophers once referred to this vagueness as a beautiful mess (beau desordre), and pretended that the beautiful was merely a question of taste (je ne sais quoi) that could not be answered precisely because it could not be narrowed down to a concept or a system. The brighter minds among them, however, suspected that only their categories were wrong and their perceptions too crude to grasp the matter. The philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, for example, sees the basis of the beautiful mess as a special “finesse” with which small and (barely) perceptible sensations (“petites ou insensibles perceptions”) interact. He wrote: “These minute perceptions, then, are more effective in their results than has been recognised. They constitute that je ne sais quoi, those flavours, those images of sensible qualities, vivid in the aggregate but confused as to the parts, those impressions which the surrounding bodies make on us and which include the infinite; that connection that each being has with all the rest of the universe. It can even be said that by virtue of these minute perceptions, the present is big with the future and burdened with the past”.[vi] Leibniz’s reference makes what is constellated in Zitzwitz’s pictures even clearer. These are not merely individual spots of light in the sky (as in a constellation of stars), but a beautiful mess of colours and gradients, forms and contrasts, metamorphoses of nuances and details. An apotheosis of small things brought about by their composition. This is exactly what we do when we see a pattern of stars in the sky. Seven small points of light form a picture, and this picture tells an endless story about what was and what is to come.

Björn Vedder (translation Sue Pickett)


[i]Theodor W. Adorno, Negative Dialectics, translated by Dennis Redmond, 2001, p. 90, open source.

[ii]Cf. with my comments on the essay Wolfram Ette, “Adorno und Platon”, in Zeitschrift für kritische Theorie, Booklet 38-39 (2014), p. 68-96.

[iii]Walter Benjamin,Ursprung des deutschen Trauerspiels, in id., Gesammelte Schriften Vol. I, 1, ed. Rolf Tiedemann and Hermann Schweppenhäuser, Frankfurt a. M.: Suhrkamp 1980, p. 203-430, p. 215.

[iv] Hans-Georg Gadamer, “Text und Interpretation”, in id., Wahrheit und Methode, Vol. 2, 330-360, p. 344.

[v]Ibid., 335f.

[vi]Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, New Essay on Human Understanding, eds. Peter Remnant and Jonathan Bennett, Cambridge 2012, p. 5.