Heinz Peter Knes

( Text )
since then never again so good

Bill Horrigan

Heinz in Porto (L’ami allemande)

Saying is inventing. – Samuel Beckett
In Porto, where I did not see it, Since then never again so good commanded an unbroken gallery wall painted green, dispersed across which the project resolved into a photo archipelago, fifty-three images from 1996 to 2012, hung in asymmetrical clusters. Heinz-Peter Knes sent me a digital file for each of the individual images, and also some installation views. I printed all of them via the office Xerox, and cleared space in my apartment to lay them on the floor and on nearby tables (I own one table) in sequential relation. It made for a deliriously messy sprawl; seeing it left to right, start to finish, required my own movement in space, so it took time no less than motion.
But I had to thrash a pathway for myself. I fabricated another of these two-dimensional renditions, and taped it to a shelf in the office, amidst the clutter of my job. People sitting in my office to talk to or interrogate me stared over my shoulder at the feeble (but good enough for me) mock-up as I sat facing them from behind the desk; this at least allowed me to ask what they thought. Some were forthcoming, others, not; when not, I stammered verbally in the acoustic vacuum of our own democratic politesse.

From a letter to a friend:
“… but I wouldn’t know what to tell you, honestly. There’s only barely an overlap of your agenda with mine. Or at least that’s how it seems right now, ask me again tomorrow…it’s Sunday morning, still dark outside (still dark inside, for that matter; I need to buy a lamp – we all “suffer from light addiction…the most modern of diseases,” in Scheerbart’s diagnosis)…and I’ve already read the NYT (no news, except a travel report by a woman who went with her small daughter to Rio; she stayed near where we stayed, in Leblon, trudged the same beach, though the writer went favela-slumming and the most we did was a taxi drive-by photo-op en route to seeing the colossal concrete Jesus; also unlike her, I spent excess time in mainly deserted Catholic churches, which is where I bought the terra cotta São Sebastião – Rio’s patron saint!, lucky sexy metropolis, another reason to envy it --; she, the writer, calls Rio ‘the most voluptuous city in the world,’ which isn’t a conclusion I could have come to myself, given how mainly deserted Catholic churches in mid-day don’t yield much by way of voluptuousness, although on the other hand, maybe once a person is past the point of lapsed faith, the chance to view la volupté is one of the things sacrificed in that down-scale conversion [a person -- okay, me -- has ZERO clue as to what he loses in the lapse…; Edmund Wilson had something to say about that, re FSFitzgerald])…and, oh, the dining room ceiling is leaking (I’m sitting there right now) from the snow thawing on the (flat) roof. I can’t afford the repair but can’t continue to complain. It’s how it goes. I’d blame it on Lent but the God I deny would torment me. Anyway, it’s a mess here, or I am. I have Heinz’s pictures all over the place. I can’t keep everything straight; his brothers and their boys had their hut, and he had -- ….”

By pathway, I mean to indicate the immersion into a narrative of someone else’s devising. Knes identified two of them coursing through these photos. Each bears the nature of fable. One is from the morgue of the fait-divers: a youth shows up in Berlin, in 2011, speaking English, claiming he’d lived in the woods for the past five years but had otherwise an unsteady hand on his own identity; the police release his picture, leading to his exposure as a Dutch boy who’d gone to Berlin to escape his niederländisch past.
The second comes from Knes’s status as a Scorpio son and as a sibling: over the years, when visiting his Catholic family and his seven siblings, he’d taken pictures of a hut his younger brothers and their friends had built and re-built in a nearby rural location, starting in 1996. In 2012, Knes’s mother mentioned that the hut had burned down. On the fire trail, he defaulted homeward.

“…I think maybe you weren’t around when we showed Smithson’s Partially Buried Woodshed…long time ago, at least twenty years, easily. That project he did up at Kent State, here in old Ohio – I ought to say, re CM, “Il s’entend dire, ‘Je viens de là’.”
“By ‘showed’ – I just mean we inherited some photos and texts, and a movie someone else, not Smithson, made at the time. But what I’d forgotten was, of course, the shed did collapse under all that dirt, twenty truckloads of it, which is what he wanted, but also that about five years later the entire thing burned, it was torched. But you know that story that when TD was here, she wanted to visit and document the site, and – I still find this incredible – there wasn’t anybody to be found who could say on the record or with certainty where it actually had stood (so to say).
“And that was only less than twenty years after it ‘vanished,’ gone. So of course in the absence of visual evidence – or even, really, with zero certainty as to which direction to turn her camera – there was no story to tell. So the absence became the story; there was never any doubt that a certain narrative was pleading to be released to roam freely. I’m not telling this right but maybe you know what I mean. That quote Arendt attributes to Isak Dinesen: “All sorrows can be borne if you put them into a story or tell a story about them.” I don’t mean TD experienced anything like ‘sorrow’ in looking and not finding the vaporized (interred?; or maybe, ‘reduced,’ like in cooking) shed, just that it’s all narrative, it’s all a story. I’m just telling you….”

The Dutch boy’s Kaspar Hauser-like desperation – it costs us nothing to be generous in imagining him – isn’t evidently visualized within Knes’s photographs, but the hut is, most certainly. The boy had already gone missing (he survives within anecdote, or possibly he reposes on a felled tree trunk and nourishes friendly raccoon varmints – a consoling finale), and the hut is at first a presence before becoming a trace. It’s all absence now, except for the gambit of retrieval Knes’s pictures enact. More than half of Knes’s fifty-three pictures visit the hut as it once stood, then fell, then re-surfaced, then finally was consumed by the earth and rendered ashen – and so these are pictures witnessing a transubstantiation, the rustic homemade being summoned back by its phantom proprietors.
Knes went there, and went back there, a methodical observant hallucination compelling him to report what he found and what he remembered. It’s partly a forensic affair: shards of domestic habitation (benches, tobacco, a couch, a broom), and of the woods being visited over the seasons, but partly an act of sympathetic imagination: the boys long since graduated from the hut, hence nowhere visible; but they’d been boys there (“…the unpolluted joy and criminal leisure of a boy…”*), and Knes’s pilgrimages to where…what once had been…confers on them a species of immortality in absentia. It’s another thread in the colored coat of Knes’s photographic project “about the circumstances of my upbringing,” as he’s nodded towards it, dutiful son and brother, never not circling the nest.

“…otherwise, and this is going back two or three years, when they dropped in here on their cross- or rather mid-country tour (they wanted to go to Memphis, to photograph stars: seriously; I mean the ones in the sky, astrally), they didn’t do all that much: they went swimming but then got locked out of our Olentangy Village apartment, in their bathing suits, mini-sitcom set-up there, and then we drove to a strip-mall for barbecue (gigantic portions none of us could finish: I wanted to apologize for American dining provisions), then we bought some beer at a gas station, then came back here to UA to retrieve and pass along the first volume of Beckett’s letters, which H. hadn’t seen yet, so that was that, that’s how it wound down….
“Otherwise, I don’t know.
“I asked him what he thought of van der Keuken’s photographs and he said he preferred Ed van der Elsken, which, who knows, I might also have thought but I didn’t know about vdElsken when we did the project with vdKeuken. Also Herbert Tobias, new to me, for confronting teen identity in Germany more or less parallel to what vdK was doing in Holland.
“And Hervé Guibert, which goes somewhere else altogether. There’s a mildly menacing photo in Guibert’s 1993 book from the Villa Medici in Rome…it looks like a burning tree trunk but it’s not entirely clear; at any rate, I found it compelling in ways I don’t find the self-portraits (there’s too many of them!). You know that work better than me, gigantic understatement. But La Mausolée des Amants, I do see that. What does M. think of that? I wish I liked the films better. At least La piqûre d’amour gives us a particularly ghoulish hunky Sebastian on its cover, Gallimard 1994 edition. (Speaking of which, laterally, separately, finally looked at The Last Time I Saw Macao, pretty dizzying…it’s a kind of ghost film, the phantom past being long gone but not gone at all, just perpetually holding up new masks.)….”

As Knes sequenced the 53 images left to right on the gallery wall in Porto, the first and the last, left and right ends respectively, anchoring the photo chain, were images of the hut’s non-existence (or non-images of the hut).
Strung along that photo chain were perhaps two dozen additive works having no clear evidential relation to the hut but drawn from his archive via an associative logic, one triggered by the presumed memories and affinities these images bear to the story of the hut, which is also (finally, no: not “also” but “fundamentally”) a story of his growing up.
Hence, a photo autobiography painstakingly conceived, provided we grant that form of self-inquiry a capacious berth, and not demand that it need disclose anything too “personal” from its visual values alone. One would get better answers only by pointing some questions to the artist, just like this: a first-aid manual? – it had come from his father; frayed fragments from a floral-patterned blanket?– used as packing material for whatever his father had sent him in Berlin after he’d left home; a close-up of a man’s face, cropped vertically ?– a friend, the German artist, Dirk Bell (handsome devil); a bust of Heraclitus?– after Messerschmidt; a young man assembling an interior hut? – a private apartment installation from 2001; a scale model of the hut? – it dates from 2008.
But also, then, gradually, an accretion of other associations: a minimal white table might rhyme with an image from Hanne Darboven’s 1966 Table Top, from Harald Szeeman’s When Attitudes Become Form. This last association I entirely impose on Knes; it was not among the questions I asked but merely a marking of his image recalling to me an image by her, one published in 1969, the year he met his family.
He perhaps would suffer this suggestion.
But surely his temperament to maneuver as a recessive, deferential protagonist within his own narrative is carried out nonetheless with a bracing conviction that his life story connects to those of his work’s observers.
He would likely ask, in that event: why go on, otherwise?
Why speak?
Viktor Shklovsky had an idea about that: “If one can say that imagination is better than reality, art is even better, because it’s the dream of every structure’s collapse and at the same time the dream of the construction of new structures.”
Knes has done right by the life of the hut; he wrote of a “strong urge to bring a once-started thing to its end; some sort of responsibility.”
Otherwise expressed, Dinesen invoking Denys Finch-Hatton, an Arendt paraphrase: “Je responderay, I shall answer and give account.”
Let Porto be registered as the place where Knes retired his debt, dispatched with honor, no less than with a lightness issuing from a strong hand (dutiful) and his familial eye (looking to understand).

Action has no end. – Hannah Arendt


*Fragment from Robert Lowell, “Walking Early Sunday Morning,” torn by Hannah Arendt from a magazine and used as a bookmark; retrieved from the Hannah Arendt Archive, Bard College.