Kurt’s Zimmer as an existential mental image
“Menschen miteinander gibt es nicht. Es gibt nur Menschen, die herrschen, und solche, die beherrscht werden.” (There are no people [living] together. There are only people who rule, and those who are being ruled.) Kurt Tucholsky, “Der Mensch”, in Die Weltbühne, June 16 1931
“Wat kán een vreemdeling eigenlijk zien?” (What, actually, can a stranger see?) Kurt Tucholsky, Een Pyreneeënboek, p. 176
Of course, we are observers, onlookers and spectators. But how can we get a grip on Kurt’s Zimmer? Let’s dwell upon the title of Karin van Pinxteren’s work. The title refers to Kurt Tucholsky, a lawyer who was born in Berlin and grew up within the Jewish tradition, and who, in the years between the World Wars, embarked on a career as politically engaged journalist and writer. His critical writings were directed in particular at the church, the authorities, bureaucracy and militarism. He also alerted, at an early stage, his readers to the dangers of national socialism. In 1933, the year Hitler is named chancellor of Germany, Tucholsky, who is living in Sweden by this time, loses his German citizenship, while his books are banned in his native country.
Tucholsky’s life provides several clues for an interpretation of Kurt’s Zimmer, in particular when we realize that Karin van Pinxteren made her work in Vught. The fact is that during the Second World War the only SS concentration camp outside Germany was established in Vught. During the short period the camp functioned, from January 1943 till September 1944, no less than 31,000 people stayed in this transit camp, including Jews and political prisoners. Like Tucholsky, they all were victims of national socialism. Knowing that, it is possible to look at Kurt’s Zimmer from the perspective of basic rights protecting, for instance, the freedom of religion and political persuasion or the freedom of speech. As for the latter: the prison Nieuw-Vossenveld is in Vught as well. While Karin van Pinxteren realises Kurt’s Zimmer, this maximum security prison is the abode of Mohamed B, Theo van Gogh’s murderer. For our reflections it is important to note that the filmmaker Van Gogh, just like Tucholsky, had become a victim of violent action against the freedom of expression.
We can also interpret Kurt’s Zimmer from a point of view which puts the human existence at the centre. There are two important points to make here. Firstly, Karin van Pinxteren does not read Tucholsky’s politically inspired books during her working period in Vught, but his book on the Pyrenees, which was published in 1927. What makes Ein Pyrenäenbuch so special is not the travel notes, but Tucholsky’s observations of people and his existential musings. Secondly, it is interesting that in 2007 Karin van Pinxteren will exhibit Kurt’s Zimmer in the Museum van Bommel van Dam in Venlo, in a setting she characterizes as an ‘existential interior’. By doing that, she brings her installation emphatically within the context of the individual and his existence.
It is clear from her other works that, to Karin van Pinxteren, human existence is an important theme. A case
in point is Approach’ (2003), an installation in the collection of Museum van Bommel van Dam. This installation confronts the spectator with a projected text: ‘share your warmth with me’. An appeal is made to the spectator, without him/her having any certainty about who is speaking. The effect is that his/her presence is enlarged, as it were. Something similar occurs in Comfort Food. In this installation, which in 2004 was on show in De Nederlandsche Cacaofabriek in Helmond, a ‘catwalk’ leads to a wall with the text ‘stay with me’ in red lettering. A third example is the work Creature, which also dates from 2004, and which Karin van Pinxteren showed in the Vertoningsruimte Argument in Tilburg. Here the text ‘give me your order’ calls for contemplation and self-reflection. In all three works an anonymous appeal prompts the spectator to ask himself questions about his presence and existence. Who is this other, ordering me? Why does he or she appeal to me? Can I ignore the appeal? How do I relate to the other? Who am I?
Kurt’s Zimmer also leads to self-reflection in the end. Of course, the other – whose existence is suggested by the name of the work, the normal-sounding waltz and the rotating light in the central column – the other is there as well. Yet the spectator does not really get to know the other. Does Karin van Pinxteren raise the question here that we will never be able to really know and fathom the other? That people in a certain way always will remain strangers to each other? That much is certain: in the end the inaccessibility of Kurt’s Zimmer, the emptiness of the interior and the silence after the music throw the spectator back upon himself. And there is something else. When a spectator looks inside through one of the wall openings, he will involuntarily place himself within an elliptical frame. Without the spectator noticing it, his presence is framed and his existence emphasised. Even more so because now and then his face is caught in the yellow shine of the rotating light. As if Kurt’s Zimmer wants to tell you: Here you are, then! Or, rather: Who are you?
Since the beginning of times man has thought about his existence, his ‘being there’ in the world. This has led to numerous considerations and opinions about man’s being, about life and death, about pleasure and suffering, about free will and determinism, about good and evil et cetera. The question of good and evil is an ethical problem, directly connected to questions about the relation of man with his fellow-man. In this respect, Tucholsky carefully studied the society he was part of. As a man, as a lawyer, journalist and writer he wondered how certain social-economic developments and violent events could take place. What’s more, he unequivocally took a stand against the power of the church, state and military authority. What would bring a man to the point that he would be able and willing to take this road? Karin van Pinxteren, as a human being and an artist, questions human existence on our time, raising issues about various dimensions of being, such as pleasure and suffering freedom and restriction and the relation between I and the other. Why wouldn’t we consider the work mentioned above, with texts like “share your warmth with me”, “stay with me” and “give me your order” from existential points of view?
And what about ‘Kurt’s Zimmer’? The surprised spectator will discover that Karin van Pinxteren’s installation can be read in various ways. But whatever his point of view, in the end he will always be thrown back upon himself in his reflections. Upon hisi own existence, and upon his thoughts about that. Maybe that is exactly what ‘Kurt’s Zimmer’ is, an existential mental image.
© Ulco Mes, art historian, ‘Kurt’s Zimmer Publikation’, 2007, translation Mels Dees