Two perspectives on one work of art
In 2019, a large solo exhibition of the Ghanaian artist El Anatsui, initiated by Okwui Enwezor, took place at Munich's Haus der Kunst. It was the occasion for Patrique deGraft-Yankson and Ernst Wagner to write together about one of the works there. deGraft-Yankson and Ernst Wagner agreed on a parallel writing process in order to minimise any mutual influence of their respective approaches. Thus, they knew nothing of each other's point of view. The resulting texts can be read above.
The result of this exercise is surprising and fascinating. In some aspects, of course, the interpretations of the work coincided, but in others they differed considerably. What they had in common, for example, was the appreciation of the production process and the impressive effect of material, size and surfaces. Also that the issue of environmental pollution plays a central role in the interpretation of Rising Sea. But it was precisely here that the first differences, even mutually exclusive approaches, emerged: for example, when deGraft-Yankson referred to the sea as a deity, a deity that can sometimes be friendly, but also unfriendly. Understood in this way, the sea in its immediate effect is simultaneously frightening and beautiful, it threatens and at the same time invites aesthetic enjoyment.
Ernst Wagner could easily relate this aspect to the Western aesthetic of the sublime, however, the difference becomes quite clear when we look at the underlying concept of what an art work is. deGraft-Yankson's text takes the work of art as its point of departure, but it always speaks of the sea itself, while Ernst Wagner always speaks of the work - and not of the sea. This different focus marks a fascinating difference: deGraft-Yankson is concerned with the sea, which he brings to us through his discussion, while Ernst Wagner is concerned with a work of art that simply has the sea as its subject. For deGraft-Yankson, the sea is "in" the work, it is really present. For Ernst Wagner, the sea is a represented motif, it lies "behind" the work, so to speak. It serves as a theme or a point of reference.
This has consequences for the methodology: while Ernst Wagner delivers an analysis of form, deGraft-Yankson focuses on contextualising the art work; he describes the significance of the sea for the people on the Ghanaian coast today. This difference is probably also due to the different perceptions of what the sea itself is: in his text, deGraft-Yankson speaks of the sea as an independent, souled entity, an acting being or a god that enters into a relationship with people. For Ernst Wagner, the sea - as part of the ecosystem - is also in relationship with humans, but he does not ascribe an independent will to it.
These different understandings of the relationship between human beings and the world are then echoed in an obviously equally different concept of what art or an art work is. In deGraft-Yankson's text, the work of art, like the sea itself, is charged with energy. The sea appears, as it were in the work, indeed it is present there. In the work, then, the sea materialises as something we perceive directly. In this sense, the work and the sea appeal to us to "preserve it from improper treatment [...] or it will be desecrated."
This approach of deGraft-Yankson, in which everything interpenetrates, is contrasted with Ernst Wagner's approach, which analytically separates everything: proximity and distance, splendour to be enjoyed and admonition to be taken seriously, discourse on colonialism and ecology, work and motif, art system and ecology, art system and colonialism, and so on. In the end, Ernst Wagner achieves a synthesis, but it only works on a meta-level by addressing the irritation of the Western concept of art through Anatsui's work. An irritation that dissolves or at least relativises the fundamental separation in Western understanding of viewer and object, of sign (the concrete work) and signified (the rising sea), of spirituality and reality, of art and ethics.
Annette Schemmel, then member of the ISB group, wrote to the the authors in 2020:
"Dear Patrique, dear Ernst,
Your texts are a great read and so complementary! For me, writing from Munich, the aspects raised by Patrique have opened up an entirely new reading of this marvellous piece of art, which I was lucky to contemplate at the exhibition of Haus der Kunst. What you're telling about Ghanaians' relation to the sea is unveiling and beautiful, thank you for unfolding these narratives here! Thank you all the more for sharing a piece of local wisdom (how the sea can react angrily) and linking these narratives to the global challenge of saving the sea, a challenge with impacts on localities all over. On another note, the evocation of "Starry Night" caught my eye at once and does make a lot of sense to me. I will be using it in my art classes, if you don't mind.
Ernst's reading of the piece is much more familiar to me, obviously. He is telling about the context of the exhibition on site in Munich, a context that is so highly charged! When exhibited at this specific museum, Anatsui's work can't but comment on our German history, laughing at its racism by means of its "immoderate" dimensions and calling for a long-due revision of our role in colonialism and in exploitative global circuits of goods like alcohol. It is for this potential of speaking to a place that artworks should always be seen in different locations!
I would also like to point out that Ernst is exemplifying a familiar method of accessing artworks here, a method that I am happily teaching to my pupils. This method from academic art history wants you to start from close observation and description of formal aspects of the work before risking an interpretation. By means of this strategy arguments about a work of art are meant to become more solid, even if this visible gesture of searching for the right interpretation makes a text less smooth. Thus, Patrique's and Ernst's approaches are totally complementary.
This said, I am not agreeing with Ernst in the way that "Rising Sea" is explicit in a way that certain Western art lovers might want to criticize. They might, but they would be very wrong. Let me explain: to me, the reproach of explicity rhymes with simplicity and a lack of layerdness. As you both have shown, "Rising Sea" does have multiple layers of possible interpretation and certainly some more, which have not been addressed here. These layers are visible, not only but most clearly, if the work is read against the backdrop of different locales. Artworks from our global age command us to look at them with changing perspectives. If certain Western art lovers can't be bothered to do this, they will forever be missing the point. Their fault. Let me add that you might even spot a good deal of irony in the way that El Anatsui has made this piece outstandingly beautiful, caressing the eye to the degree that every exhibition visitor wanted to take a selfie in front of it, while at the same time pointing to some very painful and threatening truths about today's humankind. Therefore, I would like to uphold that this artwork's relation to the viewers and to its places of exhibition is complex and challenging rather than simple or explicit.