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Slow Art: Poetry is Made with a Hammer

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In 2019, one of our Slow Art Sunday sessions looked at Günther Uecker’s 1963 relief work, Tisch (Table). Much was discussed that day, but sadly there wasn’t time to delve deeper into this intriguing artist’s work. This Slow Art Reflection takes a look back at what was left unsaid…

What we discussed

We discussed his unusual use of material and method (the nail and hammer), the relative importance of an artwork’s title, and whether a piece of art needs context to be understood.

What we missed

I would have loved to further discuss some of the influences on Uecker’s art, the explosion of avant-garde art during the 1950s and 1960s, and how era in which an artist lives can shape their art. What must it be like to want to rip up the past and start again? And how can this be achieved?

About the Artist: Trauma and Empathy

Uecker was born in Wendorf, on the Baltic coast in eastern Germany in 1930. As a teenager during World War II, he witnessed some of its worst horrors. Just before the end of the war, British bombers sank the prison ship Cap Arcona in the Baltic Sea with 5,000 people on board, mostly concentration camp prisoners. Hundreds of bodies began to wash up on the Baltic shore near Wustrow where Uecker grew up. After six weeks, Russian soldiers could no longer stand the smell and made schoolboys, Uecker among them, bury the bodies on the beach. Uecker later said, “The graves were shallow, but it was hard work, and we vomited a lot.” This experience had a profound impact, and he said, “I became more sensitive, to possess an empathy for those losing their lives, and so I became determined to live life with intensity.” At age 86, he returned to the shore near Wustrow, where he produced an art piece called Wustrow Tucher. He covered the beach with white shrouds, one for each burial from 1945, which he then painted.

Nailing Shut for Protection

Günther Uecker is best known for creating art using hundreds of nails hammered into wood, canvas and objects. He recalled his first experience of using hammer and nails when the Russian army was approaching his village at the end of World War II. He knew what horrors they would visit upon his mother and sisters if they were found in their home, so he took hammer and nails, sealed the doors, and nailed planks of wood across the windows, leaving only a small escape route for himself at the back of the house to enable him to crawl out to fetch supplies. He said of his nail pieces that they were a response to his experiences during the war, and a desire to re-establish closeness to people, to try to find a new reason for living after inheriting the guilt of the previous generation. Uecker said, “When we looked at our parents and the neighbours, we thought they were all murderers, they had been responsible for the war. Young people then were very free, we felt we could do it all.”

From Propaganda to Spiritualism

Uecker studied art and trained as a propaganda artist in East Germany until 1953, and then studied painting in West Germany at the art school in Berlin-Weissensee. To begin with, he felt isolated when he moved there, and tried to make sense of how he was feeling by examining religious philosophies, including anthroposophy, Islam, Taoism, Buddhism, and Zen, as well as music like Gregorian chants. He later brought the meditative, repetitive and healing qualities of these philosophies to his artistic practice.

In 1955 he was processed through a refugee camp and was able to move to the Rhineland to study at the Staatliche Kunstakademie, Düsseldorf under Otto Pankok, who had been labelled a degenerate artist by the Nazis in the 1930s. Uecker started incorporating nails into his painting between 1955-6. He said, “Coming from East Germany, where I had been educated about the Russian Revolution of 1917, I was thinking about Vladimir Mayakovsky's declaration that ‘poetry is made with a hammer’.”

The ‘Group Zero’ Movement

Uecker met artists Yves Klein, Heinz Mack, and Otto Piene in 1957 and exhibited with them, formally joining them in the Group Zero art movement in 1961.​ Zero was the point where all things are possible, the point during a count-down where rockets leave the ground and take off. It also recalled how the moment marking the end of the war in 1945 was referred to in Germany as Stunde Null (Zero Hour), marking the end of Nazism and a complete rejection of its values. How could new German artists create art without considering or being linked to the past?

This loose group of artists were not just looking to create art from a new angle. The movement had no group hierarchy, was open, collaborative, international. It was focused on​ making art using materials from the real world rather than the world of artifice, ​on minimising the artist's hand and emphasising light, space, seriality, colour and kinetic energy. In Uecker’s work, the kinetic energy is apparent when nails alter visual boundaries and create fields of oscillation. His methods and materials were not associated at all with art of the past, with illusions or preconceived notions of what art ought to be; it didn’t use materials in the traditional way. It wasn’t art that tried to represent something from the material world, it was art created using the material world directly, through hammer and nails. He said, “I renounced painting, I nailed over the intensity of colour – nailed over the frames and surfaces. I did that in order to bring the surface of a painting, which is an illusion – closer to the eye of the beholder – and into our reality…”

Hammering Mantras

In 1959 Uecker met experimental musician and avant-garde artist John Cage, who influenced a generation of artists and musicians including the Fluxus movement, including Yoko Ono. One of Cage’s key philosophies was that an artist just needs to set a work of art in motion and wait for reality to complete it. Cage encouraged his students to study Zen Buddhism, particularly the way it looks toward instilling meaning into every aspect of life. He also championed the use of everyday objects and the element of chance in art, and said that art should not be elevated above everyday experiences.

Uecker had started by incorporating nails as structural elements into monochrome paintings and objects. The rhythm and repetition of hammering was like a mantra for him, the physical work a catharsis, the hammering a violent act of force to create a calm space, a plain block of wood or piece of furniture or canvas a new beginning. He explained how the act of creating his nail paintings enabled him to achieve a state of deep spiritual awareness, “Concentration on the heads of the nails, which are always the same distance from the base plate – a suggestive point, identical form of the point in constant repetition. The perception of repetitions – thoughts are eradicated – a state of emptiness.”

This application of meditative philosophies into his art is perhaps most evident in one of his more recent pieces. In 1998, Uecker designed the Prayer Room at the Reichstag (the German parliament building). He said that all people, no matter what their faiths, pray, and without praying, the world is lost and that, “The greatest danger in the world is anger.” It is a phrase worth considering, from an artist who, through the forcefulness of hammering nails, transformed lived experiences that might have become anger into meaning, movement, and new beginnings.

Image credit: Oliver Mark / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)