Mediamatic Magazine Vol. 6#4 Heinz-Werner Lawo 1 Jan 1992

Cushions in Art

They are repeatedly the things which resist us and induce us to act and reflect.


Cushions in Art -

Then as a rule we force them to obey us, and more often than not we also reach an agreement with them, one which is reassuring to us. Yet below the surface the struggle continues. Let us take, for example, the war against bagatelle which is and will remain a continuous struggle: the pencil which is always breaking, the shoelace which snaps when we are in a hurry, or the cigarette machine which swallows our last piece of change without a word of thanks. Open resistance which takes us to the limits of the endurable. Plaques with inscriptions such as This telephone box has been willfully damaged testify to such lost skirmishes.

In addition to these classical duels in wild-west fashion, man versus thing in the middle of the street, one thing-species has developed a perfectly perfidious war technology – the species of the cushions. They are in perfect control of passive resistance. If involved in one of the famous pillow fights, they simply break down into their individual constituents before they can be annihilated between the fronts, thus disarming us to helplessness. Then there are the pillows in bed – every night the same problem: either they are too soft or too hard, too big or too small, become too warm or nearly suffocate us in our sleep. The problem of being pricked by protruding quills is, in comparison, a minor one. There are people who for these reasons do entirely without a pillow, and prefer to put up with a stiff neck rather than get involved in this struggle. Understandable if one has once seen how maliciously pillows, the survivors, on a deathbed are capable of grinning. I advise always using several cushions as they are pronounced individuals which seldom collude and can therefore be played off against each other.

However these are all questions of the practical dealings with cushions. Our relationship towards them becomes more complicated if we try to understand them. For we encounter no boundaries – and that is the problem. Cushions give way and refuse to provide a fixed concept. They always appear to us to be merely the result of our attempt at grasping them. The cushion in itself remains completely untouched by this. This is disturbing in that cushions are clearly the prime example of the mutually conditional relationship of content and form, being and appearing and mind and matter, the wealth of which we understand only superficially. If we take a cushion apart, we are left with merely a totally intangible heap of feathers plus an empty cover. Cushions should therefore be understood as a unit or not at all.

This very simple and pure connecting of surface and space produces a thing which can be described as the original plastic art. A cushion is not an unquantified, amorphous thing. It has a limited surface and a limited volume whereby it becomes a thing, yet as a thing it has the complete indefiniteness and non-differentiality of an original mass. It would be misjudging the character of cushions to count them among objects. They are forms of resistance – passive ones.

Universal Metaphor

Cushions are the outstanding metaphor for that which is resistingly shapable, and therefore a metaphor for art. When artists become involved with cushions, they are, in spite of and simply because of the fact that the subject is seemingly so banal, working on the question as to the real meaning of art. Let us take as an example Gerhard Richter's cushion picture: it first raises the old question of illusionism in painting. How can something spatial be depicted on the plane? How does painting overcome the missing dimension, and why do we not see only one surface however it may have been treated? At this point let us make a short digression into television technology:

The cathode ray produced in the picture tube and striking the focusing screen, adopts and realizes the concept of the visual pyramid developed in the Renaissance for illusionistic depiction on the plane. However, as the television picture is made up of spots arranged in lines, the cathode ray runs at a constant angle to a horizontal plane vertical to the focusing screen. Due to the fact that the focusing screen is not a spherical surface, there emerges the so-called pincushion distortion. If a rectangle is depicted, the edges bend inwards. This effect is corrected by means of magnetic fields. Exactly the reverse process then occurs in the eye. From a physical point of view, a rectangle seen by the eye likewise appears distorted on the retina for the very reason that it is a spherical surface. The edges bend outward. In this case it is the head which makes the correction.

When Gerhard Richter almost fills the surface of the picture square with the cushion, he produces a tension which either optically waist-fits the canvas, or irons flat the illusionistically spatially depicted cushion. The picture as a phenomenon and the picture as an object change reciprocally. Illusionism is presented and taken back. The same occurs in the relationship between surface and picture depth. The apparent spatiality of the cushion is brought back into the paint surface by means of one last operation before the completion of the picture. Richter smudges the entire picture surface, which remains visible as works in the actual paint surface, thus producing a soft-focus lens, a focusing screen behind which the cushion appears. The paint surface breaks apart into a sighted surface and a sighted space. Basic questions of painting are being negotiated and the answers remain just as soft and indeterminable as the thing to which the questions are being raised – the cushion.

When sculptors become involved with cushions, they have the advantage over painters that they are moving with their art in the same space as the cushions. Yet they do not have it easier with the featherweights. The first question to be raised here is that of the material. With regard to the traditional distinction between sculpture and plastic art according to the hard or soft basic material, one might think that the plastic artists feel more attached to the cushion than do the sculptors. Far from it! For both, the cushion, the challenger, is an unpleasant adversary, for the entire arduous business of building up or dismantling form finding is ironized by the cushion with cheerful ease, in that it always finds its form – a process demonstrated by Duchamp in his plastic Trois Stoppages-Étalon by means of fallen threads. The speed with which Palmström creates one plastic after another in Morgenstern's poem, the simple karate chop which immediately gives the sofa cushion a thoroughly justified form, shows: the cushion is per se the ideal and real plastic in itself. Whereas the unvariable sculpture is at the mercy of transitoriness, the cushion remains a process. It shows time to be an alternation of standstill and change. It shows the world as suggested by the Alpine landscape of Fischli and Weiss, and it shows the shaping and altering intervention of man. The cushion is the universal metaphor. It represents the wealth of shapes and meanings which are continually developing in different ways.

Boundary Phenomenon

Art and culture begin with the invention of the cushion. With the aid of the cushion it was possible to ease the harshness of being and to create a base for the cheerful and intellectual sides of life. Without cushions, such conversations and drinking bouts such as those Plato tells of in the Symposium, would not have been possible. As much as cushions are therefore the base for every kind of art, the first examples of a reflected analysis of this context were not handed down to us until the year 5 bc. A side wing of the Ludovisian throne and its counterpart show musicians sitting on cushions. It is not so much a matter of the contrast between fleeting music and permanent sculpture as the question as to the position of man between cosmic order and formless matter. Ancient man attempted to reproduce in music the ideal harmony of the music of the spheres. This approach towards the ideal required a distance to the real which is produced by the cushion, which can be produced as the cushion conveys reality and ideality in itself. It makes the transition between opposites possible.

In the contemporaneous philosophical school of the Pythagoreans, the founders of the music of the spheres, dual thinking is the all-determining principle. The antithesis basic to them is that between limit (peras) and the unlimited (apeiron). The cushion as the limited thing with the unlimited and indefinite form provides the representational artist with the chance to express himself on this abstract problem.

The cushion also appears in the Atlas metopes of Zeus' temple in Olympia as a boundary phenomenon. It is one of Heracles' feats which is depicted. His eleventh task consisted of fetching the golden apples of the Hesperides i.e. from a nymphs’ folk who live in the land with the evening star, in the far West, on the border to the known world. Yet this could only be reached by Atlas who was indispensable and tied as a result of his task of supporting the sky. Heracles solved the problem by taking over Atlas' work for the duration of his absence. The sculptor of the Atlas metopes shows the moment in which Atlas returns with the apples. Heracles is supporting the sky with a little help from Athena. Decisive significance is ascribed to the cushion on Heracles' shoulders. It is not a friendly gesture of the sculptor allowing the hero a certain convenience. For the artist it was a matter of portraying a boundary and the approach to this. The boundary between the sky and man, which does not exist in the case of the helping goddess, had to be emphasized for the man touching the sky. The cushion symbolises separation as well as the connection of the hero to the realm of the gods.

This symbolism seems forgotten in the Middle Ages. It exists residually in the floor cushions in portrayals of the writing evangelists. During this period the cushion is transformed into the attribute of authors, poets and producers of books. This classification was suggested by the cushion's function of exalting to and qualifying for the spiritual in both a practical as well as a symbolic respect.

Autonomous Subject

The Renaissance was a new beginning for the cushion, as it was for many things. In 1493 the young artist Dürer discovered the cushion as an autonomous, picture-worthy subject. His cushion drawings, completely misunderstood by history of art writings as fold studies, show: the Renaissance, generally understood as the rebirth of the ancient world and discovery of the individual, is to the same extent the rediscovery of the thing. Dürer's drawing Selbstbildnis mit Hand und Kissen (Self-portrait with hand and cushion) formulates this with great clarity. He correlatively connects the self-portrait, the central expression for the self-reflection of the artistic subject, with the cushion, the thing. The mirror-image of the right hand in the drawing, in the foreground because of the proportions, completes the trinity of man, thing and action. The three poles are graphically so unconnected within the drawing as the content of their relationship is left unclarified. The only thing which is clear is that a uniform context exists and that the hand and consequently the artistic production is thereby emphasized. By means of this drawing Dürer formulates the programme for every further artistic activity. The question as to what man is, a thing or art, cannot be answered theoretically but in continually new actions, in the dealings with things. This means for the artist: the repeatedly newly-begun attempt to understand a thing, and especially for all, the cushion.

The cushion is a process and it accelerates with Dürer's drawing Sechs Kissen (Six cushions). The mundane title undervalues the problems of the drawing as it does not show a summary accumulation of six varying cushions, but a sequence in which the conception of the cushion develops and changes. In the first line one can still see two different cushions which overlap, relate to each other by throwing a shadow, and lie together on one base. These cushions depend on a unified space which subjects them to gravity. The four cushion variations of the next lines no longer appear as dependent objects in the space. They are autonomous things, which are only subject to their own law, and which require a different form of portrayal – the transition from drawing to writing characters. Dürer writes on the cushion drawing with a character which he continually repeats and which changes at the same time. He describes states and views of the one cushion which, as a metaphor, stands for possibilities and abundance and art itself.

If one encounters the cushion in art, one becomes drawn into a strategically led discussion, the aim of which is to underlie. It is a matter of the base. He who can take up the position of underlying determines, as the base, the superstructure, and the depth of a thought is decided by whether it can push itself under its object or remains lying on top of it.

translation Ann Thursfield


Palmström carves out of his duvets

so-called marble impressions:

Gods, humans, beasts and demons.

He seizes, impromptu, the feathers

of the quilt and, brandishing a candlestick,

jumps back to check his creative moods.

And in the play of lights and shadows

he sees Zeuses, knights and mulattos,

tigers' heads, cherubs and Madonnas ...

He dreams: if sculptors really created all of these

they would save the glory of antiquity,

would bask Rome and Hellas in sunlight!''