grounded in the rooting
branching as it rises
no more than the open wound
a feeling of sympathy prompts me
to close the wound
laying on my hands
enclosing the pain
with hammered nails
that call to mind the crown of thorns’ -G. Uecker
In Wald (1992), Günther Uecker collects wood in various stages of immolation – cut branches, blackened charcoal and charred ashes – punctuating the monumentally-scaled assemblage with contorted nails. Abandoning the gridded discipline which characterised his earlier oeuvre, in this work the artist embraces the unpredictability of the natural world, as well as the destructive impact of human intervention upon it, translating this chaos into a configuration of nails driven in at will. Each one bent and twisted under an unrelenting force, their rough, metallic forms entrap the slender branches which interlace over the surface. Fine, attenuated growths reach down and out into space, creating a shifting, wavering tableau, and the sensation of optical interplay so crucial to Uecker’s work: ‘What is important to me is variability, which is capable of revealing the beauty of movement to us’ (G. Uecker, quoted in Günther Uecker: Twenty Chapters, Berlin 2006, p. 34).
Following the nuclear reactor disaster in Chernobyl in 1986, Uecker embarked on a series of works which were a visceral reaction to the catastrophe, and to its terrors of contamination and mortality. On the surface of works such as Russland, Russland (1991) and the Aschemenschen series, organic materials began to accumulate, withering leaves and daubed ash symptomatic of the artist’s abiding preoccupation with the irreversible, incomprehensible damage caused to nature. In their use of these common materials, these works recall that of the dynamism of the Italian Arte Povera movement of the 1960s, with artists such as Giuseppe Penone abandoning oil, canvas and bronze in favour of tree trunks, stones and nails. Yet for Uecker these simple substances became infused with a palpable spirituality: in the same year as Wald was executed, the artist produced fourteen ‘pacified implements’ for the Der geschundene Mensch (Mistreated Man) exhibition, which opened at the National Gallery, Budapest in 1993, and continues to tour internationally under the auspices of the German Institute for Foreign Relations. In these fourteen objects, their number equal to the Christian Stations of the Cross, Uecker assembled wood, linen cloths, nails, stones, and ash, configuring these mundane materials into lyrical studies of the ‘injury of human being by human being’, and setting this violent, destructive undercurrent against gestures of reconciliation and absolution (G. Uecker, quoted in http://www.ifa.de/en/visual-arts/exhibitions-abroad/fine-arts/guenther-uecker.html [accessed 16 September 2016]).
With its gestural marks of ash smudged and dragged across the surface by hand, Wald is a testament to Uecker’s lifelong fascination with the act of painting. Echoing his very earliest experiments, such as Fingerpainting (1956) in which paint is applied in swirling, repetitive patterns, or Earth Picture (1956) in which russet paint is dragged over the surface to create a viscous, rutted texture, in the early 1990s Uecker professed: ‘I am becoming more of a painter. All of my work is influenced by a yearning to paint. I regard my works as failures along the way’ (G. Uecker, quoted in Günther Uecker: Twenty Chapters, Berlin 2006, p. 154). As a member of the ZERO group, with fellow German artists Heinz Mack and Otto Piene, Uecker had aimed to recast art as a blank zone of pure potential; yet as his concerns widened, encompassing hurting and healing, destruction and repair, the nail-paintings became richly articulate vehicles through which to express his feelings about the state of the world. A richly worked surface which encompasses Uecker’s existential doubt and creative affirmation, above all Wald is a work of lyrical fragility from an artist who, as Ralph Merten eloquently writes, ‘wants to make conscious of the beauty, the amiability and vulnerability of nature, as well as of the equal need and desire of human being to be loved by this nature, to be, or really, to remain a homogenous and protected part of it’ (R. Merten, Gu¨nther Uecker, wind: 82 love-letters to nature, Mainz 1995, p. 20).