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Home Stories with no Home

(Roland Nachtigäller)

To be honest, returning home is a recurrent theme of almost unbearable sentimentality. Yet disregarding all the trashy novels, homecoming films and home stories, it’s a subject with an individual biographical drama which can’t simply be brushed aside. And in connection with artists, this topic takes on a pronounced dynamism whenever stepping out into unknown terrain of artistic analysis (which almost a priori signifies a serious artistic work) invites comparison with leaving a familiar, friendly environment. Hence both artists and artistes are particularly interested in such movements of departure and return, especially since their work is nearly always a sort of self-exploration, an examination of their own energies and strengths, which unquestionably stem from the turmoil of their individual journey through life.

It’s therefore no surprise that, despite all the pitfalls, artists almost inevitably keep referring back to their roots, to the influences, experiences and biographical circumstances which, as we know, so enduringly mould their personality and whose demonstrable relevance for their constitution remains a matter of interpretation. What delineates the differences between embarrassing self-reflection and the virtually necessary exploration of one’s own conditionality is the degree of sovereignty, the awareness of one’s actions, and reflection of the context in which the artist operates.

Accordingly, when Erik Schmidt – twenty years after leaving east Westphalia – uses his art to sceptically explore and carefully probe the topics which ultimately are clearly related to the area where he used to live and his own biography and which have undeniably partly shaped his individual worldview, when he suddenly tackles a topic like hunting, which, although internationally relevant, is nevertheless stimulated by his own experience, this reflects his fascinated yet resistant examination of artistic motivations and the search for what inspires his work – in other words his quest to determine the fundamentals contained within the individual. ‘Hunting Fever’ appeared for the first time in the title of one of his solo exhibitions (hosted by the Brandenburg Art Association in Potsdam) in 2004. This field of examination has since developed and branched out, acquiring many different facets and finally resulting (and possibly concluding) in 2010 in the concept of the ‘Westphalian Fragments’.

In this project, the close biographical bond with a topic of artistic scrutiny is not just placed in a geographical context but also explicitly formulated with a high degree of theatrical staging, yet repeatedly broken. Erik Schmidt starts by unreservedly throwing himself into the battlefield of these emotional, biographical and artistic entanglements. The trilogy format is by itself brimming with symbolism. The central medium the artist chose is the open-narrative short film. The artist himself performs the main role in each story, while the scenery, staffage and actors obviously stem from a local context. The themes dealt with in the various parts could not be more emotive: hunting and passion, disease and madness, dancing and death – all pinned to the tragic figure of the bourgeois artist totally in the tradition of Thomas Mann, twined around with aristocracy and (homo-)eroticism, etiquette and decadence.

Erik Schmidt is constantly aware that he is operating on heavily mined territory, yet explains the relentless necessity of this approach: “The project continues my study of the figure of the bourgeois artist who began developing in the early 19th century together with the European nations and their bourgeoisie. I have been studying this archetype through the medium of film since 1998. Since I am a painter, my character and my role in the world fit this projection surface. The genre from which my work emerges and in which the majority of my production takes place still remains the central projection space of the myths surrounding bourgeois artists and the veneration of geniuses. Rather than rejecting them, I try to highlight their antagonistic and hence their productive nature in the present day.” (From a project paper written for Marta Herford in summer 2009)

This can only succeed because Erik Schmidt goes to incredible lengths to heighten and stir up the theatricality, stylisation and platitudes contained in his themes and projection areas rather than viewing them dispassionately from a distance. In his work, the distance still necessary for a productive examination is achieved through a type of vertical exaggeration, inevitably leading to the subject matter being toppled from its pedestal, and through an emotional charge which plainly turns ironic and compromises the feelings, movement and references shown as a grand arsenal of set pieces, which irrespective of their links to reality address the fundamental brokenness of a possible ‘self-realisation’. Hence the films ‘Hunting Grounds’ (2006), ‘Bogged Down’ (2010) and ‘Gatecrasher’ (2010) are simultaneously childish play and deadly serious, they are equally sceptical and fascinated expeditions into his own biography, gleefully deconstructing and incorrigibly searching confrontations with his own role as artist between the ossified platitudes of the 19th century and the fluctuating identities of the present day.

Erik Schmidt’s great achievement is to be able to generalise this individual sentiment such that his personal quest suddenly acquires a widespread relevance which doesn’t coolly analyse or sarcastically criticise the parallelism of different social worlds but instead depicts the insoluble nature of this simultaneity and contradictoriness with an ironic lightness. By working without a script, bysparking improvisation on the set with high technical professionalism, by partly revealing stylistic devices of film and highlighting them as a reference system, and by managing to turn himself and people of regional public life into the ensemble of his films, Schmidt opens up a space for reflection which almost instinctively hovers on the fine line between realisation and downfall, between sentimentality and greatness, between passionate precision and garish slapstick. In all three films, Erik Schmidt takes up great humanist educational themes of the bourgeoisie, which in the 21st century appear antiquated and obsolete, and nevertheless ubiquitously shape social reality. Merely from the example of hunting – but it could just as easily be transferred to topics such as social status, illness and healing, history and tradition – the high degree to which the artist becomes embroiled with all the attendant risks in fascination and disconcertment, recognition and exclusion, passion and dependency becomes apparent. Precisely because he does not denounce these topics or their protagonists but takes them seriously, addresses the individual entanglement and emotional embroilment, and places them as questions of principle in the space of contemporary social and artistic discourse, Erik Schmidt preserves a sovereignty which stems from the high stakes of personal involvement. And this results in sentimental home stories with no home which are adrift and enigmatic, fascinating and gloomy, tongue-in-cheek and merciless.