NomadicArrival and Escape
Transit in the
The paintings of Ingmar Alge are permeated by the leitmotif of nomadic transit. From 2002 onwards, his single-family homes - firmly anchored on their plots of land - increasingly give way to pictorial motifs that tell of an uncertain arrival at a place that is to a greater or lesser degree distant. One generally sets out with the hope that the place one wishes to reach will offer new possibilities - that it will open up new perspectives and perhaps even a whole new view on one's own life. But what do these places look like in reality? How does it actually feel to stand on the longed-for shore and what prospects are offered by the wide expanse of a foreign landing strip (Palma Nr. 1, p. 49) ? What happens at the end of a set of steps, when one looks into an empty swimmingpool, or in the silent moment before a plane's departure? And what about the refugees and migrants who do not wish ever to return, who trade the misery of their homeland for a journey into the unknown: what passes through their minds when they encounter an alien world in their new location (Flüchtling, p. 83) and do not even know wherethey will stay the night?
In the pictures we see these journeys coupled with an assortment of different hopes, culminating in scenes of arrival in which the travelers give the impression that they have not yet arrived in an inner sense. This moment of having arrived without yet being truly present defies the objective flow of time. Subjectively, this extends greatly, bringing with it a degree of uncertainty. We see the figures physically landing at an airport, reaching the shore, the parking lot, the golf course, the swimmingpool, the hotel. However, they appear to be innerly trapped - to have in some way slipped between the cracks of time (Welle, p. 73). In some pictures there are no people to be seen; the motifs exude a suggestive emptiness and loneliness that matches the emotional state of the people depicted in the other pictures. Personal memories become woven into these uncertain moments, trailing behind the figures like invisible comet tails as they head for an uncertain future. Their physical attitude expresses pensiveness and a sense of being at a loss. Their goal has been reached - and, paradoxically, it has slipped from their grasp in the very same moment (Parkplatz Nr. 1, p. 87). Hopes are lost in nothingness.
Here and There and Nowhere
Mobile homes appear repeatedly and over a considerable period of time in the Alge’s pictures. They could be described as a kind of index fossil for our current affluent society. Mobile homes allow us to flee our everyday lives at any time: they symbolize the philosophy of autonomously mobile and independent travel, of being ready to drive to a still more beautiful place at any time. Strange territory passes by outside the window; within, all is familiar. Mobile homes therefore offer a rare opportunity to voyage into new regions while retaining a familiar environment.
As with the house motif, we, the viewers, assume that there are people inside, but we cannot test this assumption because the windows are closed. The vehicles are generally located in expansive treeless landscapes, in some seaside location — in places seen as desirable destinations by the Western world, places which promise rest and recreation (Mt. St. Michel Nr. 2, p. 140). However, what is really taking place within remains hidden. The pictures give rise to a number of suppositions about what might be happening in the mobile homes. The people inside are not necessarily coexisting peacefully or happily looking out at the sea — the imaginable possibilities include the whole spectrum of human existence and all its abuses, including manslaughter and murder. All of the conjectures which a rise unceasingly as if of themselves are ultimately met by the same banal question: are there, in fact, people inside these buildings? There is no definite answer to this — but this also means that our assumptions can continue unrestricted. We cannot see into the mobile homes, which appear as small habitations in the wide arena of the landscape. Small as they are, they possess a compelling narrative power.
The pictures from recent years consistently feature burning social issues. The images of migrants at airports or by the sea (Wanderung, p. 59) give rise to questions concerning the relationship between poor and rich nations. What happens when these diametrically opposed worlds collide? What expectations do migrants bring with them? And how do we respond to them?
However different their social realities and however different their reasons for putting the miles behind them, both travelers in their mobile homes and migrants wish to flee their surroundings — either permanently or temporarily. Even people living in apparent comfort are seized with a longing for distant places. Having reached their goal, they encounter a wide landscape that suddenly appears highly ambivalent: it signifies liberation from spatial and social confinements, but is also a vast emptiness. It confronts individuals with themselves, resulting in discomfort and insecurity. Ultimately, it evokes feelings of loneliness, abandonment, and melancholy. Despite their very different economic circumstances, the travelers from the two worlds all converge at this point.
Who am I, standing on this lonely shore that I have always dreamed of and that I have finally reached after my long journey — only to find nothing but myself, to suddenly discover that there are no reassuring answers to be found here, no new state of confidence and vitality, only bewildering questions about who I am, or who I think I am? The figures appear to be debating with themselves, to be bound up in themselves — regardless of which world they come from. A sense of existential threat suddenly makes itself felt in what was supposed to be the place of their dreams — exacerbated by the sudden absence of the constant distraction of the Western consumerist world. The self is isolated and unknown, and enters a state of melancholy. No one is exempt from the question of where from and where to. Prosperity offers no better defense against it than poverty. The achievements of technological progress are inert background elements, serving merely to reinforce the feeling of inner emptiness. The electric light makes the steps appear still more ghostly (Treppe, p. 65), the bright lights of the landing strip transform the scene into a baleful mirage, and the colorful stickers on the mobile home, which are intended to look cheerful, make it look all the more forlorn in its position on the inhospitable expanse of the shore (Roskoff, p. 112).
The swimming pools and beaches offer the prospect of a beautiful, carefree life, while the landing strips and waiting rooms offer personal freedom. Like the images of single-family homes, they are symbols of private hopes and dreams. Looked at in this way, the nomadic transit picture motifs could be seen as a consistent extension of the metaphor expressed in the houses. They are unlike the house pictures, however, in that we frequently see people who appear to have reached the end of their journey — although in some cases they are simply standing in an empty parking lot on the edge of town. There they are: crouching on the ground, leaning on railings, or sitting invisibly in their mobile homes, suddenly alone except for the landscape. The fact that those concerned may be at a personal turning point in their lives reinforces the oppressive quality of the situation: is the better life the refugee hoped for about to begin? Does the landing strip actually symbolize a personal or professional new beginning? And what will result from the solitary afternoon on a deserted beach: the decision to turn over a new leaf or to open a bottle? The pictures do not firmly establish anything — they show brink situations, and the personal moments that they produce may be banal or critical for the future. The insignificant and the significant lie so close together as to be indistinguishable. All too frequently we do not discover whether a decision was important until later when we look back in retrospect — a fact which gives these situations a vivid sense of fatefulness.
Submerged within Oneself
Occasionally, the figures in the pictures are turned away from us — looking, like us, into the depths of the picture, into the depths of falling night. The motif of a figure with its back turned is a characteristic feature of Romantic painting. Caspar David Friedrich (1774 – 1840) is particularly known for using the turned-away figure to create a kind of silent affinity between the figure and the viewer. The figure shares the same viewpoint as the viewer, so that we see our own double within the picture. Because we cannot see the facial expressions of the figures in the pictures their inner emotions are hidden from us, giving an additional dimension to the mystery of the magical moments of sunset, nightfall, or moonlight and taking away a little of the weight and materiality of the world. Darkness envelops these people and creates a diffuse state of indefinability, creating a degree of separation from reality. In some respects, Alge’s nomadic pictures reflect the mood and psychic state of the people in Friedrich’s pictures — partly loneliness, partly a state of being lost, and partly melancholy. Of course, these people are modern nomads who are used to covering long distances in a decidedly unromantic fashion — by car, mobile home, or airplane. It is true that reality has fundamentally changed, but the essential needs of human beings — their longing for a happy moment, a better future, perhaps even a new world — have not. Regardless of what shape it takes, people want to escape their life situation — if only for a few moments of stillness.
In Friedrich’s pictures, the feeling of loneliness is lost within the quiet grandeur of nature and is sometimes even dissipated by it, but the people in the pictures of Edward Hopper (1882 – 1967) find themselves imprisoned by the harsh neon lights of the capital. They sit at a bar with empty eyes, look dumbly out of a hotel in the hard light of morning, or appear to be speaking to one another while remaining silent. Alge’s pictures are more abstract than those of Hopper, but there is a definite similarity as regards the loneliness of the figures depicted. In both cases, we experience melancholy, withdrawn moments. The people depicted are simultaneously present and absent; their immediate surroundings amplify their psychic vulnerability, reinforcing the mood of loneliness and melancholy. The places and figures generate a symbiosis, confirming each other in their unresolved instability in such a way that we can hardly escape a sense of dark foreboding. The figures’ pensiveness attains a penetrating urgency, but their fate appears to be sealed, immutable. The more we seek out the circumstances of their lives as individuals, the more evident the sword of Damocles poised above them — the threat of some misfortune — becomes. A thorough comparison with the paintings of Tim Eitel — whose year of birth, 1971, is shared by Alge — shows that the theme of undefined spiritual damage and of fatal misfortunes is not the stuff of past epochs, but is also of interest to artists of a younger generation. In direct comparison, recent pictures by Eitel are darker and less colorful, lending them a greater initial sense of threat. In contrast to Alge’s pictures, Eitel’s sometimes make us feel as if we were on an oracular stage, at the heart of an ambiguous theatrical performance whose sharp contrasts of light and dark strike chords that are existential and sometimes even baroque in character. However, the loneliness and melancholy of the figures in Eitel’s and Alge’s pictures and the social reality intermittently visible in the motifs of both oeuvres clearly represent interesting parallels which constitute a shared thematic spectrum, in spite of stylistic differences.
The Happiness of Happiness
After a century of explosive developments in form and subject matter followed by the emotional eruptions of the 1980s, painting today sometimes appears to have lost its way, to be exhausted of potential and lacking in ideas. The possibilities of painting are bewildering in their multiplicity — positively inflationary — but so are the dangers of repetition and depletion. It is not often that relevance and inner necessity are clearly to be seen. In particular figurative painting — having been systematically misused by all the diverse political systems of the twentieth century — has lost its aura, making it risky for an artist of today to look for solutions regarding form and content in the medium of figurative painting that are not only appropriate to their time but transcend it. This describes, in brief, the conditions under which Alge began his work, but this unpromising situation did not discourage him from undertaking figurative painting. His artwork is based on his conviction that the great questions of life have a self-explanatory justification and that this is true in every age. To question the questions themselves is more interesting than to give superficial answers which are in any case very hard to come by. And this kind of questioning is precisely what takes place in these pictures.
Aside from any differences and deviations from comparable positions in the recent and less recent history of art, the wide surfaces of Alge’s paintings condense an existential mood of loneliness and disquieting emptiness of the kind that has meandered through the history of painting at least since the Romantics. Even a society based on recreation and diversion like that of the Western world cannot permanently submerge the fundamental issues of where human beings are coming from and where they are going to. In these images of nomadic wanderings, Alge shows that a simple change of location can bring these elementary questions to mind in a highly disquieting way. The yearning for a distant beach or for a better life far from home leads one to learn from experience that the elementary questions of life frequently break in on one when one is outside of one’s usual spatial environment. With a remarkable degree of sociological awareness and emotional empathy, Alge shows that these questions apply to everyone indiscriminately regardless of their origins and that neither the poor nor the wealthy can find any answers to them. Although we — as members of the most mobile generation in history — can travel to the place we desire to be we cannot escape from ourselves. Ultimately, the dream of a better life mutates into a nightmarish, haunting chimera. Overgrown places in the middle of nowhere show that our desire is a projection, merely a flight from ourselves. But what is our reason for wanting to flee from ourselves in the first place? Is it a fear that comes from the fragility of life that can throw us off course at any moment or the primal fear of the inevitable end of our existence?
Despite their melancholy, there is a consoling element in the pictures’ messages; through their air of being lost and forlorn, the figures show that this yearning for happiness that can never be gratified cannot be subdued, cannot be rationally suppressed or intellectually sublimated. To hope with all our strength to gain a little happiness and thereby put a little reassuring distance between ourselves and the final, fatal end — even at the risk of falling victim to inner and outer emptiness on a distant shore — is a fundamental human drive. It is clear that this inner drive toward happiness is able to endure sadness on the shore of our dreams and will soon hatch a new plan to find happiness somewhere else.
© Markus Stegmann
Translation: Michael Robinson
In: Ingmar Alge, Galerie der Stadt Backnang,
Verlag Hatje Cantz, Ostfildern 2013, mit dem Werkverzeichnis der Gemälde 1999-2012