The problem with grand concepts: they sound empty. Like an echo chamber whose walls are too far apart, they reverberate with repetitions of things already said, mere hollow phrases. Within this space, no object, no sound, no word retains its original size upon entry: it all melts together and instead of growing denser, it becomes totally intangible.
Words like freedom, love, life, death.
The feeling of these words is like walking across the carpark of my remarkably ugly hometown’s largest supermarket at night — perhaps the biggest expanse this desolate city ever had to offer — and gazing toward the waving flags at its far end: you only believe in moving forward because you can feel it. Or like driving a truck through the desert. That feeling of being lost, being trapped, the powerlessness in not making progress, not moving forward. Eventually it became so overwhelming that I tried to stop looking out of the window into this terrible void, but that’s kind of difficult when you’re driving a truck through the desert. And then, all of a sudden, it’s over. The desert, the carpark, the forlornness. The only thing you remember (if anything at all) is getting out, not how you got in.
Sometimes, the places, words, meanings, the immutable facts of life and the inescapable carparks of the Bavarian tundra come crashing down upon you. Through some sort of rift in reality, an injury that perhaps went unnoticed or just wasn’t there yet, they burst through the repetitive daily routines we find comfort in and, in one go, tear off the veil of boredom through which everything — the misery of the homeless on Worringer Platz, the old man at the checkout whose clothes are stiff with dirt, the mother discreetly kicking her child on the train — seemed slightly washed out and kind of irrelevant. And thus the big, hollow forms become tangible, in the truest sense of the word: Moritz, for example, suddenly found himself cradling a head — the head of a man after an accident — in his hands, to stabilise his neck. The head must not bend, must not drop while a cast was being prepared so that it could lie in exactly that position — at least for the duration of the journey into hospital. And as Moritz held on, he thought about how this cast, this mould for this one head is so crucial right now, but in maybe one or two hours becomes a redundant object, a helpless and superfluous support for something that is no longer there, no longer has to be held. Endlessly hollow.
That’s the kind of rift I mean. One that allows even more to seep through to us than words do: feelings, tactile sensations, smells, tastes, sounds, sentence fragments and melodies … often something we hadn’t even noticed in that very moment — something so inconsequential, so trivial in the grand scheme of things, becomes symbolic for this one moment, stretched in time and still resonating long after. Like the Königsberger Klopse I dropped my spoon into when my mum told us she had cancer. I was nine and the oldest of four, so I knew that this was really bad news. It was down to me to react so that my siblings — totally innocent, but in my eyes a bit stupid in their cluelessness — could continue pushing the meatballs around on their plate. Later in life I’d often encounter situations that marked such rifts, and even though we may not want to or simply cannot comprehend them, I’d spot them every time for the lack of choreographies I’d have to fall back on. After all, we all live life for the first time (at least according to my theory) and we experience many first times and encounters, over and over — too many to recognise each and every one of them — until we die for the first time. The first encounter with death, the mortality of our parents, the realisation that our parents are people, and two separate ones at that; the insight that our parents are disappearing before our very eyes, sleeping in their own archives they no longer have access to … there’s no way we can prepare ourselves for this and thus we resort to the first thing that springs to mind: I let my spoon fall into my plate and stared at her in disbelief. And even though this was perhaps the “right” reaction (if there is such a thing), because it showed that at least one of the four people at the table understood what she had said, it was also the moment I recognised how unbelievably lonely and isolating it must have been for her. The first confrontation with her own death, and us four kids couldn’t stand at her side but only at her back as a burden, a demand, a reproach. In the years to come I’d often feel shame for not having cried, but I can’t remember any emotion, any inner or outer reaction other than that mechanical letting go of my spoon. I only recall the smell and taste of the Königsberger Klopse and I still don’t understand how this dish is allowed to continue existing.
And that’s where we find them, the grand concepts: manifested in the smell of a revolting meal, in the mould of a head — a transport vessel —, in a phone call, a message, a coincidence, a moment of carelessness, a casual remark that changes everything, in the suddenly vacant expression of someone dear to you, utterly lost in their own story. A perfectly normal day just crumbles to pieces right in front of us, and there they are: freedom, love, life, death. They look completely different than what we had imagined, cloaked in moments that from then on will always stay with us and have a decisive impact on our lives. We collide with this often overlooked fragility and, sooner or later, a deep need to understand, to connect with this overarching fact, experience, inevitability of not being alone, arises.
Art and those who make art are often accused of being egocentric or preoccupied with their own feelings — which, of course, can be true to some extent. But in the face of such a rift, isn’t the need to reassure oneself of the connection with and sympathy of others perfectly reasonable? Just like the joy, the relief we feel when we see ourselves reflected in artworks, books, interviews, music, lore of all kinds … am I allowed to hate a terminally ill person if I am angry with them? Am I allowed to get pins and needles in my foot when I am holding someone’s head to stop their neck from breaking? Am I allowed to feel aggression towards a person who is weaker, older, sicker than I am, perhaps even dependent on me? And if I already do: what to do with it, out of all this loneliness? Where are the others now?
Artistic work often means working at the rift. The further this rift is removed from our everyday reality, the more important it is for the work to grant access to it. It is not about portraying the self as the only individual who has ever experienced or felt something particular, but rather about distancing oneself from the subject to such an extent that this experience, as painful as it may be, can be transformed into material. It’s about recognising that this is a moment that can be shared and that will resonate with others. At best, it’s a unifying, perhaps even healing experience for both observer and creator — and a compelling reason for working in such an intimate, fragile and precarious field; to confront things from a vulnerable position, to work with them and to ultimately let them go as something autonomous, something that can stand on its own.
Along the way, these things lead us to more, displaced, weirdly fragile, often absurd circumstances and events; the paradox of life is reflected in the paradox of this profession. And so Moritz found himself hiking across an endlessly vast industrial site in the countryside, headed to a factory that manufactures crash test dummies, the antithesis to the transportation vessel: that what must not break, created to break in a manner as similar as possible to what must not break, all in an effort to prevent something (a body, any body) from ever breaking. Doomed to fail, but designed with the systematic approach typical of medicine and other insurance strategies: a construction of life that is fundamentally flawed, yet still exists for lack of alternatives.
There are so many places where art and life overlap, where one becomes the other, where they conflate, react, or lose themselves, just as there are crude situations and activities to get to those very places. No wonder bird watching is so popular: fights & fucks with background music: the dramas in little hearts, protected by the world’s strongest ribcages. Miniature world, trial run, test dummy.
What remains is the inevitability of these realisations, one’s own insignificance in the face of big words with big meanings and feeling lost in the midst of it all, fuelled by information such as that the earth’s surface is proportionally no thicker than the skin of a peach, that a broken neck isn’t necessarily fatal, but for the sake of simplification there are videos like “Crack, snap. How to break someone’s neck” and that not just heads but entire humans can break apart without anyone even noticing. And that no survival strategy, no safety net and no clever system can prevent, change or soften all this — at least not by itself.
What remains is the possibility of finding oneself in the other, the effort to express oneself and the decision not to look away. Not to give too much space to forgetting and repressing. Cry when it’s time to cry and play when it’s time to play. Accepting the unchangeable can be liberating and bring a new sense of ease as we journey toward our always seemingly new (yet likely unvarying) goal: to not be driving alone through the desert, to not be lost alone in the carpark at night — even if just for a moment.
Moritz’s beam-back-to-childhood scent is stale cigarette smoke.
Moritz Riesenbeck, born 1991, initially studied Architecture in Münster and worked there as a tutor in the department of History and Theory. Parallel to this, he took up studies in public art at the Kunstakademie Münster, before switching to the class of Prof. Gregor Schneider at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf, where he graduated as a master student in 2022.
His artistic practice explores the real, the memories, the traces and the emotions we leave behind and through which we construe our own realities. Our connections to certain places, architectures and objects are shaped by these factors, which Moritz seeks to make tangible through his interventions.
Riesenbeck is a founding member of the About Repetition e.V., the Sono-Kollektiv and also collaborates with the group Impersonal Figure. Since 2023, he has been a lecturer at the ABK-Stuttgart in the departments of Architecture and Design.