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Author ········· Edgar Allan Poe
Medium ········· Print
Published ······ July 1845
Language ······· English

Images For Times When Language Fails Us
– Carina Bukuts

“We are made for memory, we are made for poetry, or perhaps we are made for oblivion.
But something remains, and that something is history or poetry, which is not necessarily different.”

—Jorge Luis Borges, The Divine Comedy, 19771

In the early days of art history as an academic discipline, the artist’s life story served as the primary means of explaining and interpreting artworks. With its tendency to glorify exceptional individuals as geniuses while ignoring broader historical and social contexts, however, this approach was eventually criticised and deemed conservative. As a result, during my studies in art history—and those of many generations that have preceded me—I was instructed never to analyse a work of art based on the biography of its author, as this would supposedly undermine its autonomy. Yet what I was not being taught was art history’s very own biased past in relation to questions of gender, class and race that has informed such methodology. That is something I mostly learned from artists—and in particular from those who have been initially denied access at the doors of what we call the ‘canon’. To assume that a matter is not worthy of our attention because it is personal is to ignore the underlying structures that enable some individuals to take action while denying others that very right. In other words, if biography comes knocking on your door again, invite them in, offer them a cup of tea and listen.

Ian Waelder was born in 1993 in Madrid, before relocating to Mallorca, where he spent most of his life, and where Es Baluard Museu d’Art Contemporani de Palma now hosts the artist’s solo exhibition, “even in a language that is not your own”. In April 1992, a year earlier, Jacques Derrida was invited to give a lecture at the international conference “Echoes from Elsewhere / Renvois d’ailleurs” held at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, USA. Organised by Patrick Mensah and David Wills, and chaired by Édouard Glissant, the symposium turned a critical eye on the status of francophonie in light of the rise of post-colonial theory. Derrida’s lecture was as personal as it was political, tackling his experience as a Franco-Algerian Jew, the struggle with French as the language of the coloniser and the construction of identity. Throughout his talk, he repeatedly used (variations of ) one phrase as if to form a synthesis that remains true no matter how you twist and turn it: “I have only one language; yet it is not mine.”2 Evidently both Waelder’s exhibition title and Derrida’s quote attest to the fact that speaking a language does not necessarily mean possessing it—ownership is more often an act of claiming rather than a given condition. Artists know this too well, for the practice of exhibition making is to a large extent a negotiation of the ways in which to take up space. Ian Waelder’s show “Teo’s Pink Panther” (2019) at the artist-run-space Las Palmas (Lisboa) was equally an attempt—and arguably his first—to claim ownership of and to complicate the notion of biography within his artistic practice. Using the characteristic pink walls of the Lisbon-based gallery as a starting point, Waelder presented a series of black-and-white photographic works printed on transparent PVC curtains suspended from the ceiling. As we learn from the title, Teo Goes For A Walk (2019), and as indicated in the caption, these are photographs taken by Teo Waelder of the neighbourhood where he and Ian grew up, a neighbourhood in Calvià (Mallorca) known as La Pantera Rosa (Pink Panther). Here, as with many of the artist’s works and exhibitions, the titles are never random results of chance, but instead serve as a tool to unlock meaning from what he is showing us. The photographs range from streetlights, declarations of love in graffiti, the repetitive roofing of the same type of building in housing estates and an open gate, to the only image depicting a domestic setting, a living room-cum-office with a desk, swivel chair, couch and a monstera plant in the background. The plant, which appears repeatedly in Waelder’s work from this exhibition onwards, was gifted to the artist’s parents on the day he was born and has been growing ever since. Originally taken by Waelder’s brother, Teo, and then transformed into an installation, these photographs are one of the first examples within his oeuvre, for which he collaborated with members of his family as a means of addressing questions of memory and heritage.

In 2021, Waelder worked with his father Juan, a sculptor in his own right, on The Car of Our Time (2021), a small-scale plaster reproduction of an Opel Olympia on an MDF plinth the height of his father’s shoulders. Introduced to the market in 1935, the car model was named after the highly anticipated 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, which Hitler would use as an opportunity to promote National Socialist ideology. The parents of German pianist Friedrich Wälder, the artist’s grandfather, were one of the many purchasers of this model of car. Frequently used as a symbol of mobility and freedom, cars were among the many items Jews were deprived ownership of as part of the antisemitic and racist Nuremberg Laws, which were repeatedly enacted in different variations from 1935 onwards and ultimately led to Jews being stripped off their German citizenship, rendering them stateless. Like many of his family members, Friedrich was imprisoned in a concentration camp, but managed to escape and flee to Chile in 1939 with the money he had traded for the Opel Olympia, making him the only ancestor of the artist to survive the Holocaust. In Santiago de Chile, Friedrich Wälder became Federico Waelder, with the altered umlaut of his surname serving as the last remnant of his German background. Ian Waelder never met his late grandfather, who passed away in 1989 under the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. Sculpting The Car of Our Time with his father is therefore more than a cross-family collaboration between two artists, it is also an attempt to restore what is believed to be lost through haptics when historical documents no longer exist, or language fails us.

Waelder’s choice of materials is a reflection on memory-building. By means of ordinary materials, such as plaster, glue, papier-mâché, an occasional streetwear shoe and pieces of cardboard, his sculptural work gives form to what has not been archived, photographed, recorded, written. In Injured Bird (The Streets Are Still the Same) (2023), a repurposed cardboard box not only speaks to its intended purpose as a container to hold and protect, but also to the notion of durability as such; a plaster-covered sneaker crumpled together reminds of an exhausted body on the ground while also considering the many movements and steps performed with it. Many of the objects the artist includes in his work do not necessarily come from his own findings, but are often given to him through the hands of others. The same applies to Sprain (38) (2023), a sculpture composed of an antique wooden last onto which he has mounted a nose made of air-dry porcelain. Waelder’s mother, Gina, discovered the latter many years ago and, uncertain about its origin, gave it to her son, having somewhat of a parental instinct that it might one day feature prominently in one of his works—and she was to be proved right about this. On the one hand, its title ties together the type of injury that both noses and feet can suffer, and on the other hand, the number in brackets—a reference to the shoe size of the mould—looms large when considering the relevance of the year 1938 within the artist’s family biography, marking the year of the Kristallnacht in which his grandfather was captured by the Nazis. By employing meaning to the supposedly insignificant, Ian Waelder aims to challenge our perception of the ordinary, or rather the construction of normativity, highlighting the political ideology that accompanies a thinking within such constraints. When looking at the materiality of these works, it is evident that Arte Povera has certainly had an inf luence on Waelder, but if the late art historian Germano Celant considered “poor” to be an appropriate attribute to describe the workings of artists such as Luciano Fabro, Alighiero Boetti and Jannis Kounellis, “porous” could be an adequate term to approach Waelder’s practice. Even though many of the pieces that can be found in his body of work are porous in a material sense, I would like to draw attention to its potential as a metaphor for the presence of multiple openings within a form, thereby allowing for permeability. The clay sculpture A Nose is A Nose is A Nose (2023), for instance, whose tongue-in-cheek title alludes to the poetry of Gertrude Stein3, could be perceived by visitors as a stereotypical Jewish nose, whereby it also refers to personal anecdotes the artist’s father has told him about the distinctive nose that members of the Waelder family have in common. An indication of belonging that can only be read by means of physical characteristics. In this regard, it is a curious coincidence that the newspaper that Waelder has used as a backdrop in various paper-based works, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, is the same news outlet in which Walter Benjamin and Asja Lacis published their essay on the city of Naples in 1925, where they introduced porosity as a concept of thought. For them, porosity is a consequence of “the passion for improvisation, which demands that space and opportunity be at any price preserved”.4 I believe that Ian Waelder’s practice too is one driven by improvisation and that this is something he shares with his grandfather. While this aspect becomes apparent by Friedrich/Federico expressing himself through jazz music, with Ian, it is his passion for skateboarding, where not only the concept but also the ability to improvise is key. Both within the realms of music and sport, to improvise means to embrace the unknown, to be prepared to fail and fall, and to get up again and again and again. Improvisation is an act of resilience.

Another shared interest between grandson and grandfather lies in photography. Yet again, it was Ian Waelder’s father who served as a bridge between the two generations, passing on both the affinity for the method and the technical knowledge to his son from an early age. Even though Waelder’s practice spans many mediums, I often have the feeling that much of his thinking is linked to the ways in which a camera serves as a means to fixate time. Ian Waelder is a talented photographer in his own right, but over the last 10 years, he has been removing his finger more and more from the trigger (at least within his artistic work) and instead his hand has become more visible when working with archival material. Calling to mind references like Bruno Munari’s seminal Supplement to the Italian Dictionary (1963), a book comprising the ways of expressing yourself through body language rather than spoken language, or the fixation with hands in Robert Bresson’s films, a series of photography-based works by Waelder is focused on gestures. Interestingly, the images in this series have all been lifted from photographs included in the 1935 Opel Olympia user’s manual. In Family Nose (Bare Hands) no 2 (2021), a metal plate showing slight traces of erosion serves as an image carrier for a cut-out picture of a hand replacing a tire—or at least that is what we are made to believe from the scrap the artist presents to us—as well as a plaster nose and a black-and-white photograph of a couple kissing, in which the trained eye can detect an Opel Olympia lingering in the background of the frame. Combing archival film stills in which the car makes a cameo with reproductions of the historical instruction manual already makes for a strong commentary on image circulation and the construction of iconography, but by applying these images with only small drops of glue on a plate of steel that is far from stainless, Family Nose (Bare Hands) addresses the fragile nature of memories altogether. I believe that Ian Waelder is interested in repetition, because just as you take snapshots of the same subject over and over again with the expectation that the images you end up with will all be the same, it is only when you look at the result that you realise the distinct differences and thus a shift in their meaning. While To Handle With Care (Bare Hands #01) (2022), an inkjet print on acetate film applied to the wall, also derives from a cut-out hand taken from the Opel Olympia user’s manual, here, the artist removed any trace that could give away that the gestures depicted are related to handling a car. More than anything, it is in the further fragmentation and, thus, concentration of the material that Waelder filters out truth, which is precisely what poets do as well. Thinking about the ways in which the workings of strangers or the people most close to him feature prominently within the artist’s practice, it seems to me that his works are also reflections on the relationship between ownership and authorship. All this to say, if we cannot own a language, can we at least call it by our own name?

1. Published in: Borges, Jorge Luis. Seven Nights. New York City: New Directions, 1984.

2. The lecture was first published in a more extended version in French in 1996 and translated into English in 1998, from whose edition the quote is taken: Derrida, Jacques. Monolingualism of the Other, or, the Prosthetics of Origin. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998.

3. “A rose is a rose is a rose” from Stein’s poem Sacred Emily, 1935.

4. Benjamin, Walter and Lacis, Asja. “Naples”. In: Reflections: Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writings. New York: Schocken, 1978.


Photo documentation on this website by:
John Forest, Natasha Lebedeva, Lúa Oliver, Ivan Murzin, Iain Emaline, Juan David Cortés, Paul Levack, Jiyoon Chung, Augustine Paredes, Juande Jarillo, Eva Carasol, Sebastiano Luciano, Nick Ash
© Ian Waelder, 2024