What does a line think?


Statements – exhibition view Manière Noire, Mario Asef © 2015

Language is not a welcoming land, as much as we tend to forget about it in daily communication. Reality is also not a welcoming machinery, though it seems that we have grown used to its rusty hinges. Mario Asef’s work detains both language and reality (the cultural engine that produces it) with a minimal intervention that modifies their landscape. He respects the structural elements of language or cultural situations, he studies them. And then he introduces a slight modification that provokes a twist, a bristle that detains some elements of our cultural structure in an unexpected angle. Finally, he puts them back to roll into the structure, now affected and changed, and, most of all, exposed to our perception. The ground of facts is a spiderweb (Der Boden der Tatsachen ist ein Spinnennetz), we read in one of his statements, which could easily be understood under the logic of the aphorism. Common sense is a fragile territory, and our security cannot be anymore established in the ground of facts. Language also abandons part of its power here, and there is rarely a statement in Mario Asef’s work that is not slightly touched, brought back from its bombastic character into a natural move. This is also a general trait of his work. Again, something is modified, and our perception and thought are affected, but this is done elegantly. A scarce or apparently casual line drawn there where you would not need it or expect it, can be enough sometimes. In Asef’s pieces danger is not in tragic and dramatic exposures. It lies right before us, in a very small margin that has been taken out or changed.

A thesis is a Japanese Garden (Eine These ist ein japanischer Garden) says the writing on the opposite wall. It would actually be a relief to think that we can bring our walk through the garden to a memorable ending, the hill that offers us the harmonious view of our thoughts and actions. And we might need indeed a breath into this fragile (or solid sometimes) phantasy before going down back to the garden. This closeness and return to the material is a recurrent question in Asef’s work. Be it a brick, a cake, debris, a lottery poster or the ink of words on the page, the materiality of thought is always perceived. Thus, there is never a two-dimensional experience, space, even in a small caress of volume is present. And this is especially striking in his statements, where language thinks (as it happens with the aphorism) within a very small margin of space and through very few elements. But the weight of the word on the white page (which could turn this kind of writing into visual poetry or slogans) is too much, it unbalances sensitivity. And there is where the line appears. It is never a decoration, and its relation to the words is not clearly stated. But it seems to have the function of bringing back language a little closer to its materiality, even to remind this inked decisions that there is a void around them. Casual, programatic, or even ironic or playful sometimes, the lines that appear in Asef’s work create a relational tension that incorporates language but also goes beyond it. Those lines need to be handled with care, and cannot always be trusted. So the best thing we can do is to approach the ear, the eye, and ask them what are they thinking in there. For there will be no better clue to understand and enjoy the unbalanced garden they are part of.

Ernesto Estrella

Manière Noire

 The Author

Ernesto Estrella Cózar is an educator, poet, and musician born in Granada who  has lived in New York between 2000-2012. He completed his Ph.D. at Columbia University, and between 2007 and 2011 he was assistant professor of Contemporary Poetry at Yale University’s Spanish and Portuguese department. Since the spring of 2012 he has turned to Berlin as a second base for his artistic and academic work. As a musician, he concentrates on the voice’s potential to explore the poetic process through sound. In this vein, he has created a wide array of performances that have been presented at international festivals in Argentina, Uruguay, Austria, Germany, Spain, Croatia, Russia, Finland, Latvia and the U.S.  Since his arrival to Berlin, he has been teaching seminars at Potsdam University. Moreover, in 2014 he launched The Voice Observatory, along with sound and conceptual artists Mario Asef and Brandon LaBelle. Funded by Berlin’s Senate, this laboratory of investigation offers regular seminars, workshops and performances related to the voice in its acoustic, communicative, performative, and socio-political dimensions. Most recently, his work in cultural management and civic education has led to the creation of the Nomadic School of the Senses.


Susanne Köhler

Raumprothesen-Diagram-k Raumprothesen – Diagram, Mario Asef © 2012

Urban space and its appropriation by the people who use it is the source of Mario Asef’s artistic work. In his videos, photographs, sound installations, and interventions the artist deals with architectonic as well as socio-political discourse and investigates how they are represented spatially. Like a researcher he examines the constructions of public life by working against the dominant order in subtle ways. This occurs by reordering things without notice or by removing elements specific to the location and adapting them to the art context. Accordingly, these urban objects are first apprehended as artworks when they are documented in photographs or written about in texts.

Asef’s group of works Empirien (1998-2006) presents an entire series of interventions documented in this way. For instance, in the work Fragile—handle with care/appropriation (2004), the artist placed cardboard boxes in front of the Covent Garden Theater Museum in London, which were then taken over by individuals and used as sleeping spots. By converting packaging into housing, Asef indirectly draws attention to the negative spaces of the city, which make life (survival) possible, but also to the present absence of the homeless. Like illegal immigrants or street musicians, the homeless also count among the—for the most part—undesirable users of public space.1 The artist stages this situation like an experiment. That vagrants then make use of it in practical ways undermines the efforts of local authorities.

In and of themselves the unforeseen and the ephemeral are inherent to Mario Asef’s interventions. He never knows how long his rearrangements will last or whether or how passersby will take them over and put them to use. This participation is the trigger for a non-verbal communication outside of cultural institutions. For the most part the users of the locations involved quickly grasp the initiative, deconstruct the intervention, and reestablish the usual “normal order” of things.

Raumprothesen (spatial prosthetics) can be viewed in many respects as a further development of this creative process. In this case, urban phenomena are actually translocated into the art establishment. Here Asef manifests his socio-critical stance by inviting street musicians to play at his opening. The performative evening was consciously designed to provoke interaction between the art-going public and individuals who operate primarily within the urban locations outside of cultural institutions.

In contrast to Empirien, the participation of everyone involved takes place within the exhibition space. As a result of this appropriation beer bottles, cigarette butts, and trash pile up on the floor and imprints from fingers and people sitting are pressed into the sculptural elements—the “Raumprothesen”—that the artist has integrated into the exhibition. “Prothese” (prosthetics) means here, so to speak, the artificial extension of the room that fulfills a specific function. As such the objects don’t even stand out at first. Rather, their white color and inconspicuous positioning on the margins allows them to be seen as a fixed component of the exhibition space.

A central aspect of this work involves returning the purported sculptures to the public locations where the elements that inspired them formally are found. For his work Asef initially pilfers material from the city. In this case polystyrene insulation board for acoustically isolating homes is used. In the context of his exhibition this building material is transformed into sculptures. Through their use (disintegration), mostly by the musicians to whom the sculptural elements were assigned as stages, they are, in turn, viewed as everyday objects. Throughout the entire duration of the show the viewer can observe the process of using the space along with its Prothesen. In addition the brief musical performances have been captured in a documentary video as staged memory, and are continuously on view. Here the quality of the recording plays a secondary role. Asef films more like an anthropologist who attempts to understand the circumstances from a distance. After the presentation in the art context is over, the objects and musicians alike make their way back onto the streets. Once there, people will again use the “Raumprothesen” as seating and eventually dispose of them. With this, a cycle of varying translocations and ascribing of meanings apparently comes to its end.

Whether in urban public space or within the space of an exhibition, the experience of those involved in Mario Asef’s interventions go far beyond the actual participation. Rather, through his subtle interventions, the viewer is sensitized to the processes at work in urban, social surroundings.

1 Asef’s socio-critical stance goes back to the artist’s own personal experiences. He himself migrated from Argentina to Germany twelve years ago.

The Author

Susanne Trasberger (formerly Köhler) studied cultural sciences and aesthetics at the University of Hildesheim. She curated several exhibitions in Berlin (e.g. NGBK), Worpswede and at the Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg. She was director of Kunstverein Junge Kunst, Wolfsburg, production manager for the exhibition XIII. Rohkunstbau in Berlin and published various art catalogues. She currently lives in Berlin and works for Texte zur Kunst.

Quizás los registros sean más fieles que las memorias, pues en ellos la adaptación al medio se da a priori y puede obviarse en el momento de la lectura.


Entry, from the series Empirien, public intervention – Mario Asef © 2006


Sabeth Buchmann – Mario Asef about EMPIRIEN a series of interventions in public space

Sabeth Buchmann: It would be relevant to discuss your work in relation to so-called social minimalism. This term refers to standardized forms of work with an industrial aesthetic that is based on historical minimalism and that-as in so-called institutional critique and the so-called context art of the eighties and nineties-is loaded with socio-cultural significance.  Examples include the works of Janine Antoni, Angela Bulloch, Tom Burr, Felix Gonzales-Torres, Henrik Olesen, Christian Philipp-Müller, Heimo Zobernig, etc. In my opinion, one certainly can make these associations, alone due to the apparently alinear structuring of the concepts of your work-which are rooted in the work world and everyday life-according to typologies that are more or less randomly compiled according to letters of the alphabet.

Mario Asef: From the very start the interventions were conceived as a kind of journal, in which chronology played a deciding role. In retrospect, I discovered that the series contained very specific themes, in which the intervention assumed a specific position and which, to a certain extent, demonstrated a continuity within the timeframe of a year or longer.

Naturally these themes do not need to be organized in a linear manner. There is no reason why one theme should come before or after another. The format of the book as a medium does favor a linear reading of the works. For this reason I resorted to a random classification of these themes, in order to refer to and create awareness for the non-linear coexistence of the different thematic areas.

On the one hand, this highlights the fact that a certain kind of knowledge that one acquires through experience (Empirien) is not stored chronologically in the memory. It is abstracted in a way that space and time exist independently of one another. On the other hand, herein lies a negation of conventional historiography, which always runs counter to psycho-physical element of memory in order to represent a constructed, linear xobjectivity towards events-which ultimately only serves a political aim.


Take your Time, poster c-print A1 – Mario Asef © 2006

S B: The kind of terminology you bring into play –Empirie and the notion of experience-seems to formulate an opposing stance to the minimalist tradition related to conceptualism, in which the artwork is based on ideas or theoretical propositions. At the same time, one is not given the impression that you are interested in the aesthetic or phenomenological experience in your work but in experience as a form of information about the specific context in which the works are placed. My question is whether you are concerned here with opposing moments in the perception of the xobjects and situations you construct?

M A: Yes, I do try to clearly separate different stages of perceiving the work. I think there are different levels of experience. This term is normally reduced to a sensitive level, in which an immediate effect is ostensibly generated through confrontations with the material world, without an impact on other mental levels. However, there is also a level of “mental experience,” in which material is charged with certain signifiers that strongly influence experience and that can generate different kinds of perception, depending on the possibility of interpretation in socio-cultural contexts. [All such knowledge can be confirmed as true or false, so that one single experience can be associated with multiple, and perhaps even contradictory, meanings.]

My working process consists of setting up a hypothesis in mental space and then looking for an experience in actual space that can confirm this hypothesis. In other words, this reverses the empirical process through which knowledge is gained, and thereby the function of a “contemplative action” is artificially generated and pursued ad absurdum.

Thus, an idea is not created from experience but implanted within experience as an abstract thought. Idea and experience thus becom   e a systematic construction of a thought experiment that aims to produce an unpredictable effect.


Brownie Ranch, poster c-print A1 – Mario Asef © 2006

S B: To what extent would you say your approach is related to project formats that circulate under the term artistic research? This includes an almost scientific investigation of locations, contexts and discourses. I am asking this, because, on the one hand, you often work with text and commentary; on the other, you seem to place value on the literary and poetic quality of your xobjects and projects-a quality that analytical research projects sometimes lack. So here are two questions in one.

M A: These works are not based on any kind of research project. This analysis normally develops as a kind of assimilation process. We know that the analysis cannot continue to exist independent of an xobject of investigation. This means that the analysis exists as a whole and can therefore very quickly lose its relationship to empirical reality and remain unaffected by it. In order to disempower the analysis, one can use analysis itself as a means of establishing a critique of the analysis. In this sense, humor plays an important role in my work.

The basic idea is to create a system within which one can move more or less freely. For this purpose I often fall back on pseudo-scientific methods, always in the hope of achieving a poetic sensibility that lies beyond this methodology.

This might sound paradoxical. However it is true that science (particularly since the beginning of the 20th century) has strongly influenced the cultural imaginarium of the Occident (here one could include Cubism or Futurism in conjunction with numerous science fiction visions, etc.). In other words, it is fertile ground for poetry. New scientific discoveries open up new perspectives on life and also new fantasies.

S B: Maybe we can use this point to delve more concretely into the sculptural aspect of your work. I have the impression that you-although your works could best be described with the term “situation” or “situative intervention”-still hold onto what one could call a classical approach to the xobject. For example, in the intervention Europe Towers, which you realized in a Bausch & Lomb warehouse, you bring together the aspect of a new order within European norms and a reference to modular typological forms of modern architecture, and at the same time you use cardboard boxes. The association with Warhol’s serial xobjects and minimalism is obvious. Are you interested in pointing to the frame of reference in which you are operating, i.e. the institution of “art?” At the same time, you interventions are apparently always located outside of this frame of reference, in the factory, on the street and in contexts that impact “other” social levels and realities in order to engage there with genre-like conditions of artistic production.

M A: Although a clear reference to the art context is implied in my interventions and precisely because the transformative significance of xobjects play an important role in my work-xobjects that are taken from everyday life into a gallery and museum and are then again returned to the street-I do not want to define the formal element of my work as sculpture but as structure in public space, as converted elements of this public realm that have taken on artistic reference through a “shift in order.”

One should also consider the fact that precisely these references function contextually. That is to say that once the documentation has been put together, the works must be shown in an institutional space in order for them to evoke the artistic references that were a consideration in the working process but do not play a role in the initial confrontation with the intervention.

It is really important to me that all xobjects undergo an additional process of transformation. Only in this way do such interventions have meaning.


Sleeping Policeman and Hole, poster c-print A1 – Mario Asef © 2006

S B: A conspicuous element of all the concepts of your work is that they always contain a moment of retroactive impact that is mediated through the documentation: that means that different sites of intervention-such as in Brownie Ranch, Job Center, etc.-always function as a mediated site for the production of signs. However, this is exactly what seems to make it possible for you to integrate an act of chance in a specific way-an act that embodies the moment the work is perceived. In this context I am thinking of the work Mudança. This raises the question of whom you want to address in your work.

M A: In the first phase of the process the addressees are always passersby. Later the work shifts more in the direction of addressing the viewers and consumers of art. They all represent the corpus of the social, and in this way they all represent the intended audience. In other words, the interventions consist of reorganizing elements in social space. The passersby, users, clients or workers who happen to be at the places I have selected rearrange these elements or simply destroy them.

Initially this kind of participation is the catalyst for nonverbal communication outside cultural institutions, and it represents a kind of transgression of the artistic context. Later the works are documented, and this documentation is shown as art in an institutional context. As a result, the range of addressees becomes wider, and the relationship to the work is changed, because the reorganized elements have already vanished and they only remain as a kind of “staged memory” (documentation) in the gallery or museum.

S B: In conjunction with my previous questions I am interested to know whether you have certain specific artistic conventions in mind when you take photographs, or whether you tend more towards a journalistic style.

M A: All interventions were documented with an analogue pocket camera. Personally, I have no photographic ambitions. My position resembles that of tourists who are always outside of the contexts in which they find themselves and who try to make sense of the given situation from a distance. This distance resembles the rhetorical distance of a poet, the mathematical distance of a scientist, the structural distance of an observer. At the same time, I try to engage with the paradoxical realm of the photograph. As in Dead Policeman and Hole, in which the significant motif within the context remains positioned behind the camera. The location was namely a US military base, and, as is the case at such sites, one is not allowed to take photographs.

Or in Fragile, in which a comedian placed himself in front of the intervention after it had already been taken over by homeless people. The public photographed the show and also the appropriated intervention in the background, which remained “invisible” to people because they didn’t know about it. This means that the motif of my intervention was reproduced dozens of times, but it remained invisible to people.

This phenomenon is repeated in the many interventions of Type L, in which people simply shoot photos in a museological context in order to look at them in peace and quiet at home. However, when they get home, they realize that these locations where they have been did not correspond to what was represented in the photographs. In other words, some elements take up previously unsuspected positions, although everything still looks completely ordinary.

S B: It is almost a banal cliché to say that the function of art consists of making something visible. As if the field of visibility were a privileged field of work. Your work seems to be concerned with opening up other possibilities of perception. We talked about this initially in reference to the notion of information, which targets cognitive or intellectual elements. Here, I primarily mean your work with literary texts, such as those of Borges, which deal with a transformation of language itself in a way that is more or less implied in all of your interventions.

That brings us to Marcel Duchamp, who comes to the fore in Type L, your act of donation: here information and language refer to the museum’s classification of apparently non-aesthetically coded xobjects. One could also draw other parallels, for example to Beuys and Broodthears, in the sense of a reflection on the meaning of exhibiting and the associated institutionalization process of modes of production and understanding. What would you like to add to this reflection?

M A: These kinds of references to Duchamp or Broodthaers are certainly an aspect of my intentions, although my interest is more concentrated on the aspect of the classification systems for xobjects in our environment. Thus, these interventions represent a parameter for the classification of private xobjects, which generate an absurd moment when combined with the predominant value parameters of our culture. That is the reason that we laugh when we think about choosing to make a differentiation, and it recalls Jorge Luis Borges story The Analytical Language of John Wilkins, in which he presents a list of the classifications of animals in a Chinese encyclopedia.

So my works speculate with the notion of creating a Museum of the Absurd, in which the exhibited items provoke new chains of reactions due to specific constellations, such as those of museological grammar.

Over the course of the history of art we have learned that every xobject is a carrier of meaning for cultural signifiers. Why not rethink the traditional encyclopedic structure of our museums and reconceive it as a porous organism in which public interaction is a source of a continual reconstruction of the institution?


Fox Fur, poster c-print A1 – Mario Asef © 2006

Sabeth Buchmann is an Austrian art historian and art critic. Currently she is Professor of Modern and Postmodern Art and the Head of the Institute for Art Theory and Cultural Studies at the Academy of Fine Arts, Vienna. She contributes to books, magazines and catalogues. Her publications include Film, Avantgarde und Biopolitik (Academy of Fine Arts, Vienna, 2009) and Art After Conceptual Art (The MIT Press, 2006).

Mario Asef  is a visual artist born in Córdoba, Argentina and currently works and lives in Berlin, Germany. He studied architecture and art in Argentina, Germany, and England. His work has been exhibited worldwide most recently at Junge Kust e.V. (Wolfsburg, Germany), Kasa Galerie (Istanbul), Abandoned Gallery (Malmö, Sweden) SSamzie Space (Seoul), Nouvel Organon (Paris). Recent museum exhibitions include Hamburger Kunsthalle, Villa Merkel, Kunstlerhaus Bregenz (Austria), and the Akademie der Künste Berlin.

Confusion in the Garden

Comentarios con respecto a un relato bíblico


Confusion in the Garden, installation view – Mario Asef © Lund 2007

En el relato bíblico de la Torre de Babel se cuenta la historia de la caída del imperio Babilónico en donde los hijos de Jehová son los mismos Babilonios y a la vez representan simbólicamente a la humanidad entera. Estos son castigados por dios al pretender construir una torre que alcance los cielos e iguale al poder celestial. El método que dios utiliza para detenerlos en su industria es la palabra y crea así distintas lenguas que dividen a los mortales incomunicándolos entre sí haciendo imposible la culminación de sus propósitos.

El momento histórico del relato sucede aproximadamente en el siglo 6. A.C. cuando el imperio Babilónico se hallaba en su apogeo, su gloria militar y su mayor expansión territorial como así también, aunque no paradójicamente, en su ocaso.

Los constructores de la torre fueron muy distintos a sus ingenieros, pues eran esclavos, prisioneros de guerras y no gozaban de los derechos civiles de cualquier habitante regular de Babilonia. De ahí la variedad de idiomas que ayudaron a dios a confundir los planes de aquella construcción.

La historia se remite a la ruptura del imperio como forma de castigo divino que obligó a los Babilonios a huir y mezclarse entre otros pueblos para sobrevivir.

Según arqueólogos la torre del relato bíblico se encuentra en Ur y fue un Zigurat (templo Babilónico de forma piramidal) dedicado al dios Baal; el principal dios Babilónico encargado de otorgarle vida a la naturaleza. De ahí se deduce el nombre de Babel, que según la lengua en que se lo interprete puede significar “Puerta de Baal” o “Puerta Celestial” (del Babilonio: bab-ilu) como así también “Confusión” (del Hebreo: balal). Esta última parece ser una interpretación mas bien sarcástica que los redactores del relato bíblico hicieron del nombre original Bab-ilu.

El interés que despertó la torre como objeto arquitectónico mítico de condiciones sobrenaturales tanto como su moraleja carecen hoy, a mi parecer, de importancia. Sin embargo vista la historia como una metáfora para describir un proceso imperialista de expansión territorial que alcanza su cúspide y al mismo tiempo su decadencia – pues una vez alcanzada la cúspide no existe camino que no descienda; una vez alcanzado el polo norte todos los caminos conducen al sur – se nos presenta una interpretación del relato que va más allá de todo discurso moral y ético exponiendo un proceso de expansión poblacional que lo equipara con los mismos procesos de expansión en las ciencias naturales.

Entonces también nos habla de una unidad social mantenida por la fuerza. De hombres sometidos al trabajo arduo y a la asimilación cultural forzosa por mera subsistencia.

Visto de este modo, la intervención de dios más que un castigo vendría a representar una liberación. Dios, que es la entidad que rige las leyes naturales, hace que se desmorone la torre antes de haber alcanzado su cúspide y libera así a los esclavos devolviéndoles sus lenguas natales y condena a los imperiales al anonimato perpetuo, a su dispersión que vendría a implicar también su desaparición (en francés: dispersion < > disparition).

Pero el otro tema que nos preocupa aquí es la sordera. En este caso la confusión de lenguas expresa la imposibilidad de gobierno. La sordera vendría a ser así la afluencia excesiva de información acústica no descifrada o descifrable. Si despreciamos  la lengua extranjera es porque no la comprendemos. Nos burlamos de ella para refugiarnos en nuestra visión del mundo. Pues cada idioma está expresando una determinada noción del mundo y lleva implícito en sí una estructura específica de pensamiento. Es decir que el querer dominar una lengua implica de por sí el querer ser partícipe de una visión del mundo.

En medio de esa maza acústica indescifrable de Babel, comenzamos a escuchar cuando nos confrontamos con nuestro propio idioma al que diferenciamos inmediatamente del resto del caos idiomático. Y que hasta lo escuchamos con más nitidez o con una claridad sonora que en idiomas ignorados nos es ajena.


Confusion in the Garden, poster A1 – Mario Asef © Lund 2007

Si se releen los párrafos anteriores se puede percibir en cada uno de ellos una especie de etnocentrismo que afecta mi relato pseudo-objetivo de los conceptos que componen este texto. Pero también hay una carga cultural que está desvirtuando de antemano la información original de la que me he servido para componerlo. A mi parecer este etnocentrismo cumple la función específica de confirmación de nuestra identidad cultural la cual  exponemos en primer plano para justificar nuestra jactada existencia. Para poner a nuestros actos en el epicentro histórico de la humanidad. Para elevar la importancia de nuestra cultura por sobre la existencia de las demás culturas.


Seguimos construyendo torres de Babél. Seguimos alimentando un pensamiento monocentrista /monocausal.