The Assistants
February 2012

Starting with the potent literary impact of The Assistant by Robert Walser, Fionn Meade examines a series of works inhabited by these “assisting” figures, depicting settings populated by semi-human presences and surrogate objects, custodians of memory and producers of deviance – from the caretakers of Cathy Wilkes to the spirits of Rosemarie Trockel, the cartoons charged with life of Dieter Roth to the linguistic recollections of Uri Aran and the visual poems of repetition of Laure Prouvost.

The Assistants Essay PDF Download

The Assistants

Joseph Marti has been looking himself over and he will never recover. He woke up late this Monday and took his time preparing to get ready for the week. An assistant to an inventor, Marti is a clerk that counts figures but can also take words from the air quickly, with some dexterity—a worthwhile scribe. In short, he has some skill and hope for the future. He has carved out a position. But this morning Marti lingered too long in observing himself and nothing about his countenance seems right.

“In some other place and at some other hour all this would perhaps have struck him as agreeable, instructive, nice, fine, amusing, even enchanting. Joseph recalled certain times in his life when buying a new necktie or a stiff English hat had sent him into a frenzy. Half a year before, he had experienced just such a hat scenario. It had been a good normal hat of moderate height, the sort that “better” gentlemen are in the habit of wearing. Joseph, however, felt nothing but distrust for this hat. A thousand times he placed it upon his head, standing before the mirror, only to set it back on the table. Then he moved three steps away from this charming eyesore and observed it the way an outpost observes the enemy. Nothing about it was in any way objectionable. Hereupon he hung the hat up on its nail, and there too it appeared quite innocuous. He tried putting it on his head again—oh horror! It seemed bent on splitting him in two from top to bottom. He felt as if his very personality had become a bleary, caustic, bisected version of itself. He went out onto the street, and found himself reeling like a despicable drunkard—he felt lost. Stepping into a place of refreshment, he took off his hat: saved! Yes, that had been the hat scenario. He had also experienced collar scenarios in his lifetime, as well as coat and shoe scenarios.”(1)

Robert Walser, ca. 1939. Robert Walser, Microscripts, 1930.

That the Swiss German writer Robert Walser gave Joseph Marti his mother’s maiden name reveals his 1908 novel The Assistant to be a thinly veiled cipher for episodes based on his own experience. To note briefly: Walser himself once worked for an inventor who shared a name similar to Marti’s monotonously pompous patron Tobler, and Walser is known to have worked from time to time at the Copyist’s Bureau for the Unemployed in Zürich.(2) That there was a prior Walser novel, The Assistant, which recounted “the adventures of a young man who set off for Asia on a scientific expedition in the service of an unhinged intellectual whom Walser refers to as “the devil in a summer coat,” is known only through a friend’s letter for the book was never published and perished to any further material existence.(3) But to imagine the reticent quality of Joseph Marti as remains with us—always thinking over each possible outcome before it arises, surmising the slights and small pleasures that await him—to imagine Marti off on an adventure, letting himself go, finding himself realized in a foreign country. Well, this version of the story is lost—misplaced. Rather, we are left with Walser’s art of detours en lieu of expeditions, multiple and partial selves in place of heroes, and scenarios over deeds. As the late German novelist and essayist W.G. Sebald has written, the detour scenario becomes the ultimate form: “the detour is, for Walser, a matter of survival… His scenes only last for the blink of an eyelid, and even the human figures in his work enjoy only the briefest of lives. Hundreds of them inhabit the Bleistiftsgebeit alone—dancers and singers, tragedians and comedians, barmaids and private tutors, principles and procurers, Nubians and Muscovites, hired hands and millionaires, Aunts Roka, and Moka and a whole host of other walk-on parts.”(4) Nevertheless, the injury of Marti’s hat scenario proposes a way forward, even if it proceeds via walk-on parts and wounded, bisected versions of the self. For Walser’s writing revels in an inventiveness toward the affective fissures of life that presumes many of the anaesthetic experiences of the 20th century and responds with a nearly underground form of resistance. Even Walser’s legendary “microscripts” and “pencil system” which he developed before and continued after being institutionalized later in life—a miniature, encoded form of episodic writing that Walser undertook on the backs of envelopes, bits of newspaper, the frontispiece of penny dreadful dime novels, and other scraps—is, as Sebald writes, “an ingenious method of continuing to write—coded messages of one forced into illegality and documents of a genuine “inner emigration.”(5) Walser’s scenarios echo, diverge, and equivocate but they are in the world and of the world. In looking himself over, Joseph Marti has been injured and will never recover.

The strange figures that greet viewers to Cathy Wilke’s recent exhibition at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburg appear as guardians existing between the living and the dead, presiding over memory tables that feature relics of everyday life, archival clues to a receding traumatic history, and directly communicated paintings that nevertheless seem to defy gravity and representation as they hover below and around the perimeter of the installation. These emissaries with their oversize shoes have their hands up their sleeves, made to wear the awkward issue of schoolboy or military uniforms. Open-mouthed, they are curiously watchful yet imploring. The thin patches of hair just below their caps make them feeble old men while their painted gazes keep them among the alert, young, and initiate. But they are neither. They are nameless and outside of time. “I can’t give them titles now, the titles lie so heavy on them,” writes Wilke.(6) They are, instead, sidelong sentries kept at attention, made to greet any and all passersby with the same haunted look. Standing out by the road like stacks of stones, they are children of Hermes—the God of the Roads—sent there to mark the no-man’s land out between towns, between wars, between eras.

Cathy Wilkes, installation view at Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, 2012

Perhaps these two fell at the Battle of Somme, France, in World War I that left more than one million dead as summer stretched into the bleakest fall; indeed, a black-and-white photo on one of the tables shows a large crowd of unidentified soldiers of the period peering at the camera, receding into anonymous masses. Or perhaps they are among the ones that returned “grown silent—not richer but poorer in communicable experience,” as Walter Benjamin describes “the tiny, fragile human body” that existed in the aftermath of such technological erasures of collective experience: “A generation that had gone to school on horse- drawn streetcars now stood under the open sky in a landscape where nothing remained unchanged but the clouds…”(7) These bracing half-bodies do speak, however, even without words. Like the hare that frets in the small painting on the wall behind, these spirits are caught out in a moment in between. As Wilkes tells us, “I can see them standing there. They’re so forceful, they don’t leave, they never leave.”(8) The “ever-present ghost” of Wilke’s world, the mannequins made wraiths have been digging in the ground, rooting around for tokens, pocketing devices from corpses and contemporary houses alike, saving them for display. The reaching woman figure here, with her back to the sentries and her bucket for cleaning up, she looks down and away, away from the gathering. The floating figures of the hare, Untitled, 2010, and Daddy Resting, 2009, share the low stage of artifact with children’s toys, rusted utensils, and roughhewn clay and papier-maché forms. Wilke’s items are the “helper-objects” of memory, “somewhat shameful objects—half-souvenirs, half-talismans—which one wouldn’t renounce for anything in the world.”(9) These figures collapse time and hoard only specific things that have the feel of use.

Rosemarie Trockel, Deliquescence Of The Mother, installation view, Kunsthalle Zürich, 2010

But these surrogate bodies, these helpers from the inanimate world, imitative and yet unfinished, with their belongings parceled out, these mercurial suspended figures elicit a nervous laughter as well. In Rosemarie Trockel’s recent exhibition, Deliquescence of the Mother, such spirits are encased together. From the lockdown style of collage that ran the perimeter of the exhibition—including such examples as Mrs. Mönipaer, 2006, Mr. Schneider, 2006, Ornament, 2005, and Nobody Will Survive 2, 2008—to the two oversized vitrine structures piercing the walls of Kuntshalle Zürich, the sound of muffled laughter split through the impeccable sequencing, order, and transparent barriers of glass and Plexiglas. With S.h.e. (2000/2005/2010), the retrospective gaze and desire for an “overview” is turned inside out as works from each decade of Trockel’s career and wide-ranging media stand close together in ethnographic-style assemblies.

Rosemarie Trockel, Ornament, 2006

Even as the work is “surveyed” here, hemmed into Trockel’s Kunstkammer-like constructions, it confronts and becomes a tribe. It looks back: a swollen head, Hydrocephalus / Wasserkopf II, 1982, for example, sits before the sleek black ceramic finish of a thirsty outstretched leg, Geruchsskulptur 2 (Aroma sculpture 2), 2006, and elbows alongside a diminutive goblin-like creature, Kiss My Aura, 2008, only to hunker below the overflowing hang of a signature knitted work. The archetype of mother and father have been absorbed as Trockel exposes the cultural codes and clichés that underscore our need for empathic identification while also giving form to the lack that arises in her dispersal of gender, ego, and character. The mirrors on the wall (including examples from the Dessert series) likewise do not play according to the rules, refusing to return a stable representation, offering instead the tiny deportations and tactile gleam of a cracked surface, just as the large-scale knitted monochrome series greedily swallow the remaining light. Initially supine gestures like Watching and Sleeping and Composing, 2007 and I on my sofa, 2007, prop up more of Trockel’s eyeful encounters, and the more than twenty collages montage bodies into a contortion of masked and stripped bare gestures. Trockel’s out-of-character figures have robbed the viewer of a ready place to rest. The inn is closed at Zürich. Even as we hear voices bouncing around from inside, we must look and listen intently for help has been absorbed into the beams of the work, into the very surface, structure, and shadows of its fierce acts.

Rosemarie Trockel, Watching and Sleeping and Composing, 2007

Dieter Roth, Mosò, Leuchtfarbenmatte, 1980, © Dieter Roth Estate, courtesy Hauser & Wirth

Dieter Roth’s Tischmatten—residue-stained gray sheets of cardboard used to cover his work-tables beginning in the late 1970s—are described by German artist and scholar Andrea Büttner in relation to emotion and process: “Just as in the films of the Diary project of 1982, in which he (Roth) meant to picture “shame itself,” the life of art that is registered on gray cardboards seem much like any normal office or business routine.”(10) And yet further on in her essay “…they are portable tokens of a larger abundance. They are charts of process for the wall. They are collectible. They accord with universal taste. They are virtuoso instances of shamefaced obliteration. They are not only process-oriented, they also capture the end result.”(11) Made by Roth and sometimes with his son, Björn Roth, the so-called Work-Tables and Tischmatten recently on view at Hauser & Wirth in New York, show us what Björn calls the product of a place where “things flow together or become isolated. It was a kind of laboratory, to search for beauty in nothing. And a workshop for assembling findings.”(12) These findings include the smear and slap of thick paint, numerical calculations, names and telephone numbers, semi-conscious covering up in the multiplicity of doodles, taped polaroids of people, things, and views once in and out from the studio, and, occasionally, a poetic metaphor, figurative shape, or act of decisive, overall erasure comes clean. From Tischmatte (Trophy), 1979, to Tischmatte Bali/Barcelona, 1985-2001, to Burotisch-Matte, Bali/Mossfellsveit, 1988-89, for example, Roth's mats are primary records of time and place. Hung on the wall, scenes of order and disorder become projection-like, inscribed images that exist somewhere between random and decipherable. Rune-like in their splotch, drip, and notation, the Tischmatten show us the mimetic behavior of Roth and his co-producers. They are easy to read into because the mats show us a place between behavior and function. Residual, functional surfaces, the Tischmatten capture the margins of activities and gestures continued and completed elsewhere. But they are also returned to and elaborated upon—composed. Incident and pure functionality becomes expressive, played with and dwelled upon. The bureaucratic, half-thinking of tabulation, note taking, and taping-off, becomes a scene of pleasure and pain. As Büttner reminds us in regards to the Tischmatten “Roth was now less likely to be ashamed of “crap.” And in his shame he had discovered that even covering things up and leaving them alone were strategies that produced a beauty of their own…”(13) Roth himself:


Take a thing and put it on one thing
Take a thing and put it on 2 things
Take a thing and put it on 3 things
Take a thing and put it on 4 things
Take a thing and put it on 6 things
Take a thing and put it on 7 things

Sell any time.(14)

And here we have circled back to Walser’s “hat scenario” as the everyday act becomes a moment of mimetic crisis, fear, and eventually a place of unique pleasure. The gestures of silent cinema come to mind in thinking of Marti’s obsessive vulnerability taking shape and finding contour in the hat finally on its hook. As Marti recounts the moment of feeling utterly lost, having to duck into a bar to rid himself of the guilty hat he must continue to don while in public, the very same moment and the acting out of its remembrance becomes the moment he is “saved!” Saved from the hat, saved from himself and others, saved from the future and the world-at-large. By giving his feeling a shape, Marti can finally rest for a moment and let semblance and experiential logic and likeness take over. Marti is able to make the link: “Yes, that had been the hat scenario. He had also experienced collar scenarios in his lifetime, as well as coat and shoe scenarios.” A similar propulsive and iterative nature exists in New York-based Uri Aran’s sculpture, video, and drawing scenarios. His corrupted approach to object-making utilizes everyday materials and linguistic repetition to achieve a concentric sadness that repeatedly goes back over actions undertaken. Embracing and exhausting absurdity to the point of breaking it down into a new language, Aran creates a hapless yet quotidian deliverance not unlike the “hat scenario.”

Uri Aran, Untitled, 2012, detail view

For his recent exhibition and related publication by foot, by car, by bus, on view at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise in New York, Aran delved even further into his world of material transference and linguistic re-tracing. Adopting the comedic atmosphere of genre forms, the impoverished tableaux are populated with objects and words standing in for each other, replacing each other, morphing into hybrids, becoming surrogate, and opening up throughout the installation to a slippage of metaphysical doubt. Modes of arrival—by foot, by car, by bus—become way stations for sentiment. The image and caption of an “uncle in jail,” reappearing throughout, is confused by the guise of a dog traveling “by train,” and a horse miming the appearance of a criminal’s mugshot. By occupying a place of transition and modification, Aran’s metonymic gestures of standing-in do not cancel or replace but become generative, finding associate forms: a series of quick line drawings—mouse, horse, shark, and cat—for example, are superimposed over the photo of a smiling pregnant woman; drilled into work-tables house memento-like objects to form an uncanny alphabet amid the wood shavings. Constructing a shape-shifting language with the most meager means, Aran inventories pathos, absence, and laughter.

Each experience, the experience of resisting as well as the experience of a defeat, constructs little personalities that coexist. --Alexander Kluge(15)

The filmmaker, novelist, and theorist Alexander Kluge has repeatedly argued that the newfound ease of digital imagery and editing has not made the interruptive techniques of montage obsolescent. In contrast, it has made the holding onto implied by montage’s capacity to immobilize the flux of sensory impressions through emphasis upon the cut and interval all the more urgent.(16) Klugean montage argues for an insistence upon images as actions and gestures to be inhabited and repeated, underscoring the inevitability of variation, difference, and error as a cosmology of resistant, unresolved images. Kluge argues that montage does the work of memory becoming corporeal, becoming a symptom in the continuity of events. From such early examples as Artists Under The Bigtop: Perplexed, 1968, to his indelible example of the destructive legacy of medieval German kings told through existing two-dimensional imagery, News from the Hohenstauffens, 1977, through to Kluge’s current works for television and Internet broadcast, the insistence upon intertitle, subtitle, and voice-over acts against the assumed smoothness of digital montage. As Kluge has succinctly put it, “You do not have to understand it; you need only walk through it… Narrated differences, that is our work.”(17)

Alexander Kluge (co-directed with Maximiliane Mainka), Nachrichten von den Staufern (News of the Stauffers), 1977

This symptomatic desire to adhere to and allow images their material form is abundantly present in the videos and installations of London-based artist Laure Prouvost. Narrating difference with a Klugean flare, her video It, Heat, Hit, 2010, for example, assails the viewer with seduction and dismissal, inter-cutting a barrage of fast-paced moving images (taken by the artist) with textual directives and warnings that beseech the viewer to stay with the frantic pacing. Cooing one moment with placid words and voice-over entreaties only to rail against the viewer to pay attention and remember everything the next, Prouvost’s narrator is both sinister and comic. The hand-held camera movement, focused on close-up imagery and fragmented views, joins with percussive commentary to bear out an intense lyricism that contradicts and even denies the contemporary malaise of a surfeit of information and images. Everyday footage of the incidental (horses in a pasture, a frog swimming, a man with a bass drum in a marching band, shattered glass, snow, a huddled group of women in traditional clothing) is mixed with clearly staged scenes (car wheels burning rubber, staples in a mouth, red hot coals, an apple extended toward the viewer, a knife on a cutting board, pneumatic drill, shattered glass, smoke) until they appear interchangeable. Composing an unforgettable poetry out of emphatic repetition, gestural affect, and confrontational address, Prouvost steps clearly from staid rhetorical arguments regarding appropriation.

In replacing narrative expectation with editorial acuity and associative imprint, the inherent patterns of directive and declarative phrases—which abound in all of Prouvost’s videos and installations—are questioned and overturned, leaving an aftertaste of breached authority. Likewise, the signposts of plot development are willingly sabotaged by emotive digressions and dictatorial intertitles, impaired by bursts of music, color, and foley sound. What emerges from the maelstrom is a melancholy yet comic vision of restless flight and waylaid departure that is seductive in its display of vitiated power. As in the Beckettian dilemma of time passing without a clearly defined goal or aim, it may be unclear what Prouvost’s half-characters are waiting for, or how long they’ve been at it, but there is equal parts joyous release and saturnine remembrance in their acceptance that all life “is a wandering to find home,” as Beckett’s shambling protagonist Murphy once put it.(18)

Laure Prouvost, Burrow Me, 2009

Proceeding via the push and pull of discipline and come-on, Prouvost’s narrators admonish and then coax the viewer to come closer. In Burrow Me, 2009, for example, the subtitle “I managed to take with me a few pocessions, but i was exhausted,” accompanies nighttime footage shot from above of a drunk and homeless man’s coming-to beneath a streetlight and attempting to gather his paltry belongings from an overturned cart. Managing only a small bag of select possessions before a prolonged zig-zag exit into the early morning hours, the voyeurism is accompanied throughout by ‘70s crooner Joe Dassin’s Et Si Tu N’existais Pas, 1975. While the song teases out the humor and discomfiting pleasure of watching the man’s ineptitude, the scene also takes on the man’s arduous efforts like a cloak, “I managed to take with me a few pocessions, but I was exhausted.” Going back and forth between wanderer and director, Prouvost is eternally departing, inviting the viewer along for a look. Indeed, the synaesthetic collapse and build of her image, text, and sound sequences achieve a circular effect whereby Prouvost’s guidance implores as much as it cajoles, reaching for exit or release only to be brought back to her ineluctable task and the journey underway. The viewer is repeatedly addressed but also notably absent from any shareable place with the narrator, irrevocably so. Theirs is an impossible meeting.

As with the stories of Franz Kafka (Prouvost’s most recent video The Wanderer, 2011, departs from a translation of “The Metamorphosis” by collaborator Rory MacBeth), Prouvost’s tragicomic narration is resigned to respond and generate rather than fix meaning. “It is for them and their kind, the unfinished and the hapless, that there is hope” writes Walter Benjamin, comparing Kafka’s functionary characters to the gandhavaras of Indian mythology, “mist-bound creatures, beings in an unfinished state,” messengers constantly moving between states and existing without a clear status, but also a step closer to pure function. “The twilight in which they exist is reminiscent of the uncertain light that surrounds the figures in the short prose pieces of Robert Walser,” writes Benjamin, “None has a firm place in the world, or firm, inalienable outlines… There is not one that is not either rising or falling, none that is not trading qualities with its enemy or neighbor, none that has not completed its time and yet is unripe, none that is not deeply exhausted and yet is only at the beginning of a long existence.”(19) It is in the act of setting out, the act of seeking, in taking on the direct translation, the digging from here to an unknown elsewhere, that transmission reveals its significance. The message is secondary to the role of messenger, the task is transitive not constitutive.

In looking himself over, it’s clear to Joseph Marti that he will not recover.

--Fionn Meade

(1) Walser, Robert, The Assistant (New Directions, 2007), p. 143
(2) See “Afterword” by translator Susan Bernofsky in The Assistant (New Directions, 2007), p. 299
(3) Ibid., p. 300
(4) “The Promeneur Solitaire,” published as the introduction to The Tanners by Robert Walser (New Directions, New York, 2009), p. 15
(5) Ibid., p. 23
(6) Wilkes, Cathy & Byers, Dan, Forum 67 exhibition brochure (Carnegie Museum of Art, November 12, 2011—February 26, 2012), p. 23
(7) Benjamin, Walter “The Storyteller,” in Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, Volume 3, 1935-1938 (Belknap / Harvard University Press, 2002), p. 144
(8) Wilkes, Cathy & Byers, Dan, Forum 67 exhibition brochure, (Carnegie Museum of Art, November 12, 2011—February 26, 2012), p. 23
(9) Agamben, Giorgio “The Assistants” in Profanations (MIT Zone Books, 2007), p. 32
(10) Büttner, Andrea, “Now I am Somebody” in Dieter Roth: Work Tables & Tischmatten (Yale University Press, 2010), p. 38
(11) Ibid., p. 39
(12) Roth, Björn, “Introduction,” in Dieter Roth: Work Tables & Tischmatten (Yale University Press, 2010), p. 27
(13) Büttner, Andrea, “Now I am Somebody” in Dieter Roth: Work Tables & Tischmatten (Yale University Press, 2010), p. 36
(14) Quoted from a 1964 piece in Dieter Roth: Work Tables & Tischmatten (Yale University Press, 2010), p. 39
(15) “On New German Cinema, Art, Enlightenment, and the Public Sphere: An Interview with Alexander Kluge,” October (Vol. 46, Autumn, 1988), p. 46
(16) See Philipp Ekardt’s “Starry Skies and Frozen Lakes: Alexander Kluge’s Digital Constellations” in October Vol. 238, Fall 2011, p. 107—119, for an in-depth consideration of Kluge’s recent output.
(17) “On New German Cinema, Art, Enlightenment, and the Public Sphere: An Interview with Alexander Kluge,” October (Vol. 46, Autumn, 1988), p. 55
(18) Samuel Beckett, Murphy (Grove Press, 1957 edition), p. 4
(19) Walter Benjamin, “Franz Kafka” in Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, Volume 2: 1927-1934 (Harvard University Press, 1999), p. 799

Copryright Fionn Meade unless otherwise stated