Dr. Stephan Berg


One of the most beautiful and famous scenes in the 1969 cult film “Zabriskie Point” by Michelangelo Antonioni, a road movie that depicts the US counterculture movement at that time and among other things recounts the absurd plan to build exclusive holiday retreats in the desert, depicts the climatic explosion of a villa in endlessly drawn out slow motion. It is a violent scene, but one which – against the backdrop of a clear blue American sky – is so supremely celebrated that we are tempted to see more in it than just an emblematic visual attack against an overconsumptive culture and superficiality.
The ornamentality of the composition, the seeming pleasure it takes in the exploding details,additionally turn the frame into an emphatic celebration of deconstructivism, a homage to an interminably slow but unceasing movement that is not directed at order, coherence and constructive clarity, but at destruction and disjointedness.

The artworks of Matth äus Thoma express themselves quite differently, yet in their manifestation oscillating somewhere between chaos and order, they also clearly contain a moment of explosion, deconstructivism and destruction: an anarchic impulse that resists static freezing, opposes finality and only finds gratification in potentially endless mutability.

Thoma is a sculptor. By all means in a classic sense, when you consider that wood is not only his preferred, but his only medium. What’s more, in his works you can almost physically sense how intensely he needs direct sensual contact to the material, how intensely his artwork is developed from the substance, from the process, and not coolly calculated on the drawing board, following a purely analytical logic.
On the other hand – and this is totally at odds with the classicism cliché – he is very keen to completely free his sculptures of all expectations of monolithic uniformity, static finality or ideal perfection.Thoma’s creations always look a little bit like – well, not exactly “breaking down new buildings”, but perhaps like exploding wooden huts or like the unforgotten build-it-yourself house that due to a mix-up in the packing crates Buster Keaton built so crookedly it looked as if he had invented deconstructivism long before Frank O. Gehry and Coop Himmelblau came on the scene.

It’s not without reason that Thoma’s works tend to be compared to architecture. Indeed, through
the use of wooden battens, planks and other constructive elements, his sculptures, including
his new creation “Einbruch” (“Breakdown”) for the E.ON Energie head offices in Munich, positively beg comparison by rendering a certain affinity with the spirit of the architectural unambiguously clear.
Why should someone do this who, on the other hand, so clearly and unambiguously claims to be
interested solely in sculptural questions, in other words in how mass relates to void, the interior to
the exterior, statics to movement and the material to itself and spatiality? I think because he needs the laws of statics, the order parameters of architecture as a confrontation, as resistance, so that he can poignantly pit his almost involuntarily evolving, or better, battening sculptural logic against it.

In this respect, the architectural aspect of these sculptures acts as a drop height from which they
articulate their autonomy as sculptural creations. Put differently: With their feigned promise that they somehow function according to a comprehensible logic (namely that of architecture), they lure the beholder inside the maelstrom constructed from battens and planks, which then asserts its very own labyrinthine substantiality.
If one wanted to solicit anything approaching a fitting comparison from the architecture metaphor,
one could only find it where architecture was never permitted to become reality, but was developed
solely on and for paper: as, for example, with Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720-1778), who in his
series of prints known as “Carceri” (1745), depicted the claustrophobic vision of an architecture that appeared to be just as uninhabitable as it was inescapable. In their phantasmagorical logic of
stairways leading nowhere and impenetrable, hopeless labyrinthineness, a delight in the
irrational, in the anti-enlightening prevails in these “prisons” that is also not alien to Matthäus Thoma’s complex, tectonically precarious batten clusters.

And another outsider comes to mind: Ferdinand Cheval (1836-1924), a postman in the small
village of Hauterives in the French Rhone valley between Valence and Vienne, who one day finds
an unusual stone and thereafter begins to collect more and more stones with which over the
years he builds his very own “palais imaginaire”.
A Gaudi-esque dream in stone, which appears less to be constructed than organically grown,
developed from its own substance, and yet when it comes down to it persists in a continuous
state of becoming. Of course, these examples differ significantly in their results from Thoma’s
artworks, and yet they are inspired by a similar spirit, this love of the bewildering, contempt of the
right angle and an architectural perspective that contrasts the sprawling, a proliferating, potentially endless growth with that which is clearly defined and statically fixed. And just as Cheval saw his imaginary palace grow stone by stone, Thoma also works his way from pillar to post as-it-were, towards his sculptural finales.

When referring to Piranesi and Cheval, it could – albeit somewhat aphoristically – be postulated
that the one (Cheval) finds, and the other (Piranesi) fabricates. And Thoma? Does both:
he finds everything he needs and fabricates from it – in the literal sense – amazing and yet
very real structures that are always balanced on the borderline between self-assertion and
self-refutation. The Munich creation “Einbruch” (“Breakdown”) is no exception and even in its title
plays on the rudimental criminal energy with which it has broken into the ordered architecture of the E.ON Energie building. Unlike the other works, which are actually more stand-alone, trapped in
their own logic, “Einbruch” was created especially for its exposition venue. And fortunately a Berlin
sculpture atelier also had a gallery and balcony exactly the same height as in Munich, allowing
Thoma to prefabricate the sculpture in Berlin, so that all he had to do was re-install it in Munich
– with minimal changes and modifications. Two smaller sculptures in the inner courtyard appear
like a foreword or an afterword to the main work which, despite its size and bulk, comes across in
the extremely high space as almost fragile and in an intriguing way graceful. The main sculpture
evolved from a relatively compact form with, as its point of departure – outlined in various
sketches and detailed drawings – the idea of a stack from which the sculpture develops as a
steady antagonism of falling and rising elements.

Of particular importance are the different perspectives to be gained when viewing the work
from different angles. The whole work is a constant juxtaposition of interior and exterior shapes
containing a processual mobility, demanding equal mobility on the part of the onlooker. Like
all of Thoma’s works, this is a sculptural body that oscillates between deconstruction, construction,
reconstruction, labyrinth and plausible tectonics.
Equally striking is the extent to which this sculpture works with complexity maximization. Quite
in contrast to the constructivist or minimalist yearning for purification, here everything works
with interactions, intricacies, duplications and obscurities, which ultimately produce a sculpture
that is as complex as the world in which it is created. This goes hand in hand with a sculptural
conception that does not accentuate the distance between the artist’s body and the body of the
sculpture, but their close rapprochement, their actual bonding.
Given this, it is indeed critically important when developing the works – something which,
incidentally, comes out clearly in the drawings – to imagine oneself inside the sculpture, actually
becoming a part of it. Matthäus Thoma therefore doesn’t only climb around inside his creations
because he has to in order to assemble them, but also to get a feeling for what still jars or how thesculpture can further develop.

This method of working on the one hand explains the enormous physical impact these works have,
and at the same time makes it clear that they are in a certain sense powerful extensions of the bodyand manifestations of complex thought processes. One famous saying (possibly attributed to Ad Reinhardt) maintains that sculpture is what you fall over when you step back to get a better
view of a painting, an ironic commentary on the alleged superiority of the medium of painting over
sculpture. There’s no danger of this happening to you with Thoma.
Sculpture here is a totality that physically confronts the beholder, that he can no longer evade: the
model of a world fashioned from battens and planks whose centre has got lost, but that in its
moving, fragile, toppling endangeredness feels anything but ill at ease. A wholly unideological
and at the same time succinct commentary on the status quo. And tangible proof that this “status
quo” doesn’t exist, but instead only a continuously toppling, breaking down and breaking out
movement which brings it home to us that only that which in the literal sense doesn’t stand still
has a chance to survive.


© 2005 matthäus thoma, berlin