Let's call it Heimat is a show by Hans Schabus, a 42-year-old Austrian artist, now up at Simon Preston's gallery at 301 Broome Street in New York's Lower East Side. The focus of the show is a video installation entitled "Atelier." A roughly 10-minute loop, "Atelier" takes as its score the final shoot-out scene in Sam Peckinpah's 1969 movie The Wild Bunch. Cut for cut, and camera angle by angle, "Atelier," which documents the artist's studio and its Vienna neighborhood, is a match to the Peckinpah original.
The dynamics and visual logic of the Peckinpah battle organize our perceptual encounter with what appears to be a safe, benign urban locale. We hear the Peckinpah soundtrack, very loud — mostly the violent noise of gun fire — as it builds energetically to a bloody conclusion.
The effect is darkly hilarious and even shocking; it is mysterious and fascinating, even once you are in on the joke. (See here for a short, very positive review.)
There's a lot one could say about what gives this video installation its authority and power. "Heimat" is a word with very particular associations in German; it has been used by Nazis and other right-wing extremists and has something like the meaning of homeland or fatherland. And then there is the fact that Schabus uses an artistic rendition of extreme graphic violence and mayhem to choreograph his own presentation of his Viennese art studio. Is it significant, given these themes, that two women in Islamic dress are briefly shown ambling down the street (to the sound of gunfire)? And what of the fact that the studio itself — the place of work and creation that is the video's ostensible subject — seems to be located in or near one of the famous pre-war Viennese Gemeindebau, that is, low-income social housing projects?
All this doubtless repays further thought. But I suggest we turn in a different direction.
The poet Antonio Machado once wrote, "you lay down a path in walking."
The act of walking scores the earth, marks it, and produces the path which, in turn, guides, but also constrains, our movements. Our lives play out against scores — in this case the sculptured ground on which we stand — which are of our own devising.
We are wanderers, says the poet; that is, we are path makers by nature.
Path-making, in the end, it turns out, is a graphical practice. The path is the trace of our wanderings, just as the line on paper, or in the clay, is itself, whatever else it is, the trace of the movements of the hand that made it.
The link between home and studio (Heimat and atelier) is as basic as it gets, then. Let's call it fundamental.
The work of art never contents itself with mere manufacture, with mere mark making, but seeks to exhibit what creation and mark making presuppose.
Part of what is displayed in Hans Schabus' video installation, and part of what makes it so outstanding, is this: life itself is a process of making; action leaves traces and these traces, whether on a piece of paper or canvas, or on the earth, are the scores we live by. This is what is presupposed and it is the work of art to bring this fact into focus.
Art is a way of keeping score.