Searching Through the Domains of the Human

At the outset, before entering into any discussion of the individual works, their content and their formal approaches, it should be noted – and emphasized – that Asta Gröting’s series The Inner Voice is an endeavour that makes its mark through its determination and its consistency – and the courage of the artist.

Gröting’s work with ventriloquists has now been under way for over ten years, in itself a sign of the artist’s staying power. Experience shows that this kind of stubborn determination in artistic production does not always mean that the art in question is enriched or refined, or even periodically renewed. The opposite is often the case, as witnessed by every new art fair with its obvious instances of signature styles repeated – and watered down – ad infinitum. To this day, Gröting’s series is free of this kind of enervating déjà-vu, because she never stops developing both the content and the form of her ventriloquist’s dialogues. It seems that Gröting draws constant inspiration from her work with various partners. Her real interest in other ways of living and working, and in the experiences and viewpoints of the performers, clearly influences and benefits her texts and shows. The artists she works with include Germans, an Englishwoman, a Finn, a French-Canadian, a Norwegian, an Italian, and again and again Buddy Big Mountain, the first internationally recognized Native American Master Ventriloquist Puppeteer.

In 2003, for Dead Air in Vienna, Gröting worked with a professional author for the first time, the Englishman Tim Etchells. Up to that point Gröting had always written her texts herself. Since the performance of the first Dead Air, which was followed by further versions, Gröting has come to prefer the medium of live performance to her earlier method of producing for the camera and disseminating her work on video. The performances are, however, still documented in high-quality filmed versions. [1] To this day, she still uses the same dummy – which she designed herself – in every episode she produces. (The exceptions are the Zweitlinie (A.G.) – Second Line – videos, in which the „false“ ventriloquist Bodo Albertini talks to objects.)

So much on the artist’s staying power. And why courage? Courage is a strong word. The use of this notion when referring to artistic decisions – albeit with the right feeling for the relativity of the idea – implies that it would not be too audacious to define certain ways of working in the context of a field of art and its time as courageous, and therefore others as conformist and affirmative. To assess the risks that Gröting has taken with the Inner Voice series, it is necessary to look in more detail at her career and the contexts in which she works.

After studying at the elite Düsseldorf academy, Gröting began a very promising career in sculpture, with numerous shows in renowned galleries and art institutions, participating in several biennials and other international group exhibitions. Her work was acclaimed and received in terms of sculpture referring to organic bodies, with its aesthetic mastery in questions of form, and distinctive selection and working of material. Her sculptures are beautiful, out of the ordinary, and unforgettable. Gröting penetrates to the inside of physical bodies, bringing to light the organs that perform bodily functions. The question she is interested in ambiguous: What makes us tick? Normally this question refers to our inner motivation, and our goals, but Gröting is literally driving at the physical mechanisms behind all life and all striving.

The Digestive System of a Shark (1990), reproduced in glass. The Gorge (1992), made of pink silicone rubber, an organ that cannot be clearly defined as human or animal, transformed to an enormous scale. And truly clever, tongue-in-cheek creations such as the Highly Intelligent, Truly Slim Sculpture (1999).

In all an elegant oeuvre that for all its iconography does not use the kind of drastic means of Abject Art, a genre that also works with the body. Gröting’s work is simply more sophisticated.

In 1993 Gröting made a film that rather broke with the well-groomed appearance of her previous work. The film is called The Inner Voice

By making a video Gröting turned to a medium that enjoys a far more precarious status on the art market than the manifest object. But this is only the material aspect of a daring challenge to the very foundation of her career. With this short film the artist exposed herself to the vulnerability of the Kleinkunst variety performer.

The film begins with an establishing shot showing a kind of tropical botanical gardens. The setting evokes rather the cheap artificiality of a hotel complex than any sense of an idyllic refuge. An odd couple appears: an entertainer and his dummy signifying his vocation as a ventriloquist. The entertainer bears the signs of the rather tacky and yet confident dress code of his trade – the glitter and pomp of Las Vegas combined with the aesthetics of multi-purpose entertainment centres in provincial German cities. Blow-styled hair, a bulky ring on his index finger, a cobalt blue show-suit. His partner, the dummy, however, bears no resemblance to any of the usual clichés. She is not a clown, nor a cuddly toy, not a figure from Punch and Judy, and not a child. Her long grey hair has female connotations, and with her hooded gown she looks like a mix between a nun and a witch, with a touch of the fairy-tale figure and another touch of a lady from a bygone era. A pale face with no eyelids, and wide-open dark round eyes.

Characters like Pierre Bagée, the ventriloquist in this film, are only accepted by German intellectuals when they do pastiche, exaggerating extravagantly and playing this role as well as top comedians such as Helge Schneider. But Asta Gröting does not even wish to exploit the camp effect so as to gain favour with the art elite. She makes use of the ventriloquist’s skill for a collaborative work in which both sides are competent. This kind of partnership and co-production between high- and lowbrow artists was clearly destined to represent a considerable challenge to the art world, particularly in Germany. It is true that the early 1990s saw a large upsurge in multiple authorship, group formations and co-productions. But there was a strong and undisputed consensus as to who the artists, critics and curators saw as suited to working with them. Potential partners were defined primarily via an interest in interdisciplinary project work, or in social interaction and support projects with an emancipatory or political goal.

Given this context, how should we view a serious artist who chose to work with a partner from the questionable demi-monde of variety performance?

Asked, years later, by Marius Babias why she did this kind of work, Asta Gröting answered that the variety milieu was simply fun to work in. [2] For me personally, when I read this, it was the most refreshing statement by an artist that I had come across for a long time. It seems to me that this criterion – joy – is still an important reason for working in the business of art. It is not a good idea to neglect your own enjoyment and the fun that this work can involve. This is the irrational side to artistic – and curatorial – activity that resists control and repressive self-modelling in the name of flexibility, self-exploitation, self-marketing and the like.

In a published e-mail exchange Gröting gave more detailed reasons for her interest in ventriloquists and their work:

„I am interested in the people I meet there and they are interested in me. That’s really the most important thing for me. The people I associate with and the people I really want to work with and spend time with. It was a liberating moment for me when I started working with ventriloquists. It’s been productive work and the reason may be that for me, it hasn’t been weighed down by all the things that belong to the art world, especially since I felt quite inhibited when I was working as a sculptor. While I was a student at the Düsseldorf School of Art from the early 1980s to the early 1990s, most of the work being done in that part of Germany was concerned with the formal aspects of art practice and there was a lot being done with different materials. A whole language evolved out of this, but eventually a lot of artists started to wonder if that was enough for them; they wanted to work in a wider context. At the time, my interests shifted towards psychological and social issues. By writing scripts for ventriloquists, I found a forum where I could express my ideas. [3]

Gröting’s first film is not typical of the whole series. Firstly, it is formally distinct: the camera is deliberately used to create a filmic style, moving with the action, and repeatedly swinging up to a commanding position above the action. Then there are cuts, close-ups and shifting perspectives – all techniques that Gröting later abandoned in favour of a static style which always places the performance itself at the centre of attention.

It is only in this film that three voices are heard, whereas the following films use only two (or the first film uses two voices instead of one, if the ventriloquist and the dummy are counted as one voice only). The third (or second) voice comes from off-stage, and is named in the credits as the inner voice, which only the dummy seems able to hear. This voice’s text is written in a rather antiquated language, with vague references to classical drama and a literary tone that seems reminiscent of studies of literature in school. In terms of content, this voice already displays the same mix of formal language and nonsense, wisdom and empty babbling that will also determine the laconic discourse of the later texts. First and foremost this is a matter of presenting trajectories of approach and withdrawal, the patterns of speech that all not directly goal-oriented conversations between people follow. This is a fluctuating movement towards the other on the basis of true interest, then back to satisfying the egoistical need to project oneself, and also including a rather indifferent gliding between these two poles.

From this point on, the human organ which interests Gröting is the inner voice. The aim is to plumb social and psychological states of being, and so her work is always also an analysis of our contemporary lives. Many of her works play out a prototypical communicative situation. The main title is always The Inner Voice, with an additional title that specifies the theme. The first sentence in the manuscript indicates the matter at hand, in Gröting’s typical dry and direct way:

„The Inner Voice / DEATH

The dummy draws the ventriloquist’s attention to the fact that he is going to die; the latter’s reaction is friendly, even positive.

The Inner Voice / YOU ARE BAD

The dummy explains to the ventriloquist that due to his faults and vanity he has no reason to feel good.“

As in her sculptures, Gröting has no interest in trash aesthetics in her films, although this was very influential in artistic photography and video in the early 1990s. Lighting, sound and camera work all have to be perfect. But there are deliberate exceptions here, in the above-mentioned series with Bodo Albertini, who disguises his voice to imitate a ventriloquist and communicates with objects. These include a red rubber glove and a rough work glove in The Inner Voice / WORK and a toy car in Oldtimer. This sub-series is deliberately filmed out of focus. The amateurish style of the intonation, the odd choice of props and the crude camera work all create a disturbing contradiction with the contents of these works, in which Gröting is directly political. The conversations all deal with the brutality of the neoliberal world of work. Albertini’s playful and rather foolish performance is indicative of an important aspect of Gröting’s approach – her humour. What these sequences have in common with the „professional“ ventriloquists’ dialogues, which focus more on processes between individuals, is the subject of fear. This is the fear of being judged (negatively), the fear of failure, of losing affection, of being disposed of and thrown out of the world of work – and a number of other similar threats. Only the inner voice may dare to touch on these fears and the shame they engender, and only the inner voice can talk openly of them. Or rather the inner voice cannot be prevented from doing so. The inner voice cannot be controlled, influenced or repressed. In a Freudian sense, it is both the subconscious and the superego, a control freak and a disciplinarian.

The central issue in ventriloquy clearly revolves around the question as to who actually is speaking. Johannes Meinhardt has written with great clarity and in some detail on the confusion of voices in Gröting’s work (although I would not agree that the dummy looks like Gröting herself):

„The ventriloquist speaks the text written by Asta Gröting, which also includes quotations, but the ventriloquist is speaking this text for the dummy, which looks like Asta Gröting; the dummy for its part does not speak as Asta Gröting, but rather as the inner voice, a peculiar psychological Ôorgan’ embedded in the body. This configuration gives rise to a number of highly delicate questions: Who is speaking – is the author speaking with two voices; or is the dummy speaking; or is it the ventriloquist; or are the cited authors speaking; is it rather language itself that is speaking; or is it the inner voice? Who does the voice belong to, a voice that is produced by the body and its organs whilst the content of the sentences is produced by a consciousness? Who does language belong to – are the sentences that I speak my sentences, or am I just a plagiarist when I speak, someone who assembles quotations, and merely reproduces what I have heard elsewhere or language itself? [4]

This uncertainty, and the fear of violating taboos, of insult and injury, confessions and embarrassment, coupled with the simultaneous pleasure inherent to speaking of all of these things – this is what has always made ventriloquism so attractive.

Following her thorough searches through all-too human domains, Gröting – the fearless investigator – then breaks into the settled and cosy front rooms of the art world. Tim Etchells’s text for The Inner Voice/ DEAD AIR (2003) deals among other matters with the artist’s fear of public failure, and of not reaching any audience.

In her new film, Faster (2004), Asta Gröting shows that she has not forgotten how to communicate in images without words. The artist Maria Eichhorn and the museum director Kasper König are seen in an absurd race in wrecked cars. What is at stake is pole position in the grand prix of the art circus. Who is ultimately just ahead, the artist or the art manager?

It is all quite simple, and yet nothing is more difficult to grasp unless you take the plunge – if you come across ghosts they transform themselves into a perfectly average self-confident sort of person you can talk quite nicely with. This is something that Asta Gröting shows quite clearly in her Inner Voice project. To bring this introduction to a close, I will borrow the artist’s comment on Tim Etchells’s text: „I like his unpretentious style. Tim calls it workman-like und human-scale.“ [5]

Stella Rollig 2004

Übersetzung: www.tradukas.de
Stella Rollig is a curator and art publicist. Since 2004 she has been director at the Lentos Kunstmuseum in Linz
[1] The first live performance staged by Gröting, which was not part of the Inner Voice series, was Ice in Frankfurt in 1995. In 1997 Gröting staged her first live ventriloquist’s show, with Pietro Ghislandi (Milan). He and his dummy took turns to read from a newspaper that looked like La Repubblica, but whose content had been designed by the artist. She used interviews from the German Taz newspaper, in which inhabitants of East and West Berlin had been asked: „Are you happy?“
[2] „Was dumm herumsteht, muss wieder weg“, interview with Asta Gröting by Marius Babias, first published in Transmitter, catalogue on the exhibition of the same name at the Bonner Kunstverein (1999). See also Marius Babias, „Ich war dabei, als … Interviews 1990 – 2000“ (Frankfurt am Main 2001).
[3] Asta Gröting and Stella Rollig: „’Ich bin doof’ (Sokrates)“, in Neue Review, no. 3 (Berlin 2003). English version in the catalogue of the Sydney Biennale 2004, translated by Anglo-German Communication, Sydney.
[4] Johannes Meinhardt, „Leibliche Sinnbilder: Asta Grötings Skulpturen und ÔLebende Bilder’“, in Kunstforum International, no. 148 (December 1999–January 2000), p. 248.
[5] „’Ich bin doof’ (Sokrates)“, see note 3 above.