About the Art of Johannes Pfeiffer
In the late 20th century, art dealt extensively with the issue of the essence of the work of art, namely with what defines art. Many different answers have been given to this question, together with a variety of expectations. Many possibilities have been explored to break away from such guidelines and expectations, in order to create something independent or autonomous. The place of art, or the place where art manifests itself and engages in dialogue with the viewer, is of great importance. To manifest his works, Johannes Pfeiffer has always sought out places that have appealed to him in some way and stimulated his sense of historicity. As an example of his approach, several works can be mentioned here.
The work Stratificazioni is located in the side chapel of an Italian church. The floor had been partially removed, revealing the sand of the subsoil underneath and the bones of a previously buried tomb. Pfeiffer installed a section of brick floor over it, supported by several plastic threads attached to the point of intersection between the wall and the ceiling. This sort of artificial intermediate floor allows the observer to direct his gaze not in a voyeuristic way but rather gently to what lies beneath. It functions as a protective mantle with the aim of concealing without completely covering up what lies beneath, i.e., the history of the dead with its various sediments. The weight of the floor is almost completely supported by the individual sealing threads, which reveal the immaterial dynamism of the lines of force converging at a single point of extreme stillness. The difficult balance between floating and weighing down indirectly reveals the static conditions of churches, which in medieval buildings were often borne exclusively by the architect's perception without having any exact means of calculation. The wall frescoes behind the wire bundle are also influenced by this concept. Just like through a veil, they can only be perceived if they are, in a certain sense, removed from the direct gaze of the viewer. Pfeiffer addresses the viewer's perception, emphasising distance as a contrasting spiritual and material proximity to the creators of the frescoes from past centuries when architecture and painting left an indelible mark on history. As the living conditions and the social and political fabric changed, so did the human point of view, thus altering the concepts of architecture, painting, and place value.
The artist's main theme repeatedly turns out to be history, an expression of the strong bond between man and nature. This is the case of a tree trunk, stripped of its side branches, charred, and cut into manageable pieces, which straightens up one last time clinging to a staircase wall. In this work of art, nature turns into a monument to itself. Since the changes in the physical state stimulate a temporal process, which also affects humans, everything that is treated as raw material, such as wood or coal, goes through the cycle of nature. At the same time, the tree trunk conveys the initial and essential static nature, a symbol of the first human experiences with their own dwellings. This is precisely the case of a staircase as a representation of the roots of human experience and its progress. Located at St Peter's Church in Bad Waldsee, in the Baden-Württemberg’s state, the art installation Sichtverlust also addresses the themes of experience and caducity: like stakes in the flesh of architecture, the charred tree trunks are stuck between the walls, connecting, and supporting the architecture before its decay.
Johannes Pfeiffer's materials are extremely simple and reflect, once again, the basic experiences of men in their history. Among the building materials, the brick is one of the oldest ever used. The combination of fire and clay makes it a natural material with such a hard texture that is still widely used all over the world. Wood is naturally one of the first building materials ever employed, charcoal was used as a source of energy but also as paint to realise the oldest cave drawings. As a bearer of culture and, at the same time, a creator of its own destruction – think for example of funeral pyres – wood has played a significant role in human history.
Pfeiffer goes to the heart of things, tracing them back to beginnings that seem to have no end. By rediscovering history, the artist highlights its permanent nature and our current condition, our place on a tiny boat sailing down a wide river, whose course we can barely steer. How does history influence our lives, civilisation, and art? What are its assumptions and how does it change our point of view? In 1998, at the Berlin Italian Culture Institute, Pfeiffer removed the plaster from the walls of the Italian embassy building, revealing the brick wall structure highlighted by precious cornices from the 15th and 16th centuries. Once again, history becomes something tangible, although, for security reasons, it is not possible to get close to it. As a metaphor, the damage and the uncovering of the excavation represent the human will for self-awareness. Behind the simple action underlying this work lies an extremely complex reflection inherent in the artist's entire collection of artworks. It is a reflection on freedom, which can only be achieved after a careful analysis on the nature or essence of things of the world and by becoming aware of one's own history.
Das Große Schweigen was an installation located in the basement of the hospital of the Eberbach Abbey in the Rheingau region of Germany, consisting of forty tree trunks that were barked, stripped of their sapwood, and displayed in the darkness illuminated with ultraviolet lights. The wood surface of the black locust used by the artist is weakly fluorescent, so the trees looked almost ghostly. Cistercian monasteries, such as the one in Eberbach, were always erected in remote locations. For the construction of the buildings, entire areas had to be chopped down. Pfeiffer retraces this action eight hundred years after the foundation of the monastery, bringing the trees back to their fleeting nature and displaying them in an enclosed space. It is common to imagine how landscapes or villages might have looked centuries ago. Pfeiffer's works combine the past with the present and allow us to take part in the corresponding genius loci, which binds historicity and transcends time. In addition, the artist exudes a sensibility that puts the viewer in front of his or her own expectations and conscience, so as to inspire self-reflection.
Two brick walls stand on a lawn. They seem to be collapsing towards each other, held by single, thin, and transparent threads that connect each brick to a fixed point far away in time. Every slightest change in this system of grips causes the fragile structure to assume a different position, perhaps even to collapse. In this dynamic process, however, there is not only a danger threatening the situation, but also an opportunity to make a change and take a different perspective. Perhaps we are all invited to discover the freedom to untangle the knot within ourselves.
Dr. Martin Stather