We must prepare for parting and the journey
or else remain the slaves of permanence.
Hermann Hesse, Poesie des Aufbruchs
“You think you are making a trip, but soon it is making you – or unmaking you,” writes the Swiss author and travel writer Nicolas Bouvier. Is it the need for something new, or an inner restlessness, an inner necessity, or is it simply external circumstances that again and again motivate Olaf Osten to move on – to go to other places? His travels, however, are always linked to the certainty of return: the artist has, after all, been living in Vienna for more than fifteen years. If asked whether this return and the desire to get back to everyday routines could be referred to as “coming home”, the artist would probably answer in the negative. Departure as flight from unchanging surroundings, or as Hesse writes from the slavery of permanence, may be one of the travel motivators, but it is more of a matter of curiosity regarding the alien and the unknown, and Osten‘s yearning for his earlier domicile, Hamburg.
Initially the series Commuting was centered on Olaf Osten‘s travels between Hamburg and Vienna, and on the time spent in both cities, with which he is equally familiar. It represented an attempt to link the coexistence and interconnection of both cities in his conscious thinking. Osten has broken out of this geographic limitation, however, and the series has long since come to include further landscapes and cities such as Brno, New York, Barcelona, Lübeck, Rügen and Bezau. Created during the last five years, Commuting is also something like a biographical notebook: the view from the train window, the landscape rushing by, or the great expanse of sky outside the airplane window. The traveling artist‘s sketchbook is an old pocket calendar. To preclude any ideas the viewer may have of making connections between the schedule recorded therein and the city views and travel destinations depicted, the artist has turned the calendar upside down before drawing. Although there is no causal relationship between the dates and drawings, a formal dialog develops between the lines and surfaces and the printed page format. Occasionally coincidental associations do in fact arise between Osten‘s work and his long-since outdated calendar entries. For their final presentation, the calendar drawings are rendered as large high-quality prints on canvas.
The drawings capture atmospheres and moods, impressions of different countries and places that remain hidden to the tourist‘s eye as soon as its gaze has locked onto the usual sightseeing attractions. And yet many of these perspectives also go unappreciated by the native, who no longer can see anything special in the familiar. “Maybe the real traveler is always in the eye of the storm. The storm is the world; the eye is that with which he views it. In the eye it is quiet, and anyone who is in that place can make out things that pass by people who stay at home,” states Arab philosopher Ibn al-Arabi, quoted by Cees Nooteboom in the book Nomad‘s Hotel. Olaf Osten is interested less in imposing facades than in details, like the view of a bridge over the Donaukanal from below, a housefront in Hamburg, a typical Viennese staircase, the Serapionstheater in Vienna, a breakfast deli in Manhattan, the view from a window in Brno, or the activity of workers at a construction site on Wallensteinplatz. The abundance and variety of the series is striking. Taken in total, it reproduces the rhythm of a year in the artist‘s life. He continues to produce these drawings, not working according to any plan and remaining open to the impressions of the situation at hand. They conserve traces of passing time and of the artist‘s personal activities. Layers of Osten‘s private and artistic biography overlap in the manner of a palimpsest, without ever becoming anecdotal. Sketchy lines, quickly drawn and left intentionally scraggly, underscore a casual, almost random approach the subject matter. At times visual elements coincide in the same place on the page, as in the Lerchenfelderstrasse scene, where streetcar, pedestrians and buildings partially overlap, evoking the simultaneity and dynamism of the urban setting. Often such impressions remain in consciousness for only a split second after crossing the threshold of perception.
The pictures tell of interposed urban worlds, approached individually through the process of drawing, which goes beyond the seen to express the atmosphere of the place, feeling its oscillations. Some of the images are concretely defined, while others are only flighty sketches of what passes before the eye, as in the depiction of the “Enzi” outdoor furnishings in Vienna‘s MuseumsQuartier. Interior scenes switch off with street views. Nonetheless, one recognizes the places, even when they are only implied by a few lines. “Cities, like people, can be recognized by their gait,” writes Robert Musil in his novel The Man without Qualities. The way in which movement swings through the streets, Musil claims, characterizes a city far more than any particular characteristic feature. Osten‘s drawings, without adhering to set formal, compositional or logical principles, are also a cartography of time. Duration, however, remains undefined, which allows comparison with the Diarios of Argentinian artist Guillermo Kuitca, who writes of his series: “There is no concept of perfection, no expectation of a result.”
“We must always discover the world anew,
see it anew and learn to grasp it it anew.”
Maps, in the artist‘s second series, coalesce into poetic and territorial worlds of imagination, in which reality and fiction overlap. Olaf Osten surveys the world anew, generating new spatial relationships and formal tensions. In this series the pocket calender as a drawing surface is replaced by the conventional school atlas. The artist thematizes the paradox of land surveying, very much in the sense of the discussion between Pater Zea and Alexander von Humboldt in Daniel Kehlmann‘s novel Measuring the World. The former sees the landscape in unmediated perception, while the latter surveys it, relying on lines that enable him to grasp the multiplicity of the world. “Lines are everywhere, said Humboldt. They are an abstraction. Wherever there is space as such, there are lines. / Space as such is elsewhere, said Pater Zea. / Space is universal! / The universal is an invention.” The cartographic approach is most certainly rational, and Olaf Osten would not argue with it, “but that is not how the world looks; we don‘t perceive it from this aerial perspective. Our gaze orients itself to the terrain, to the horizon.” The horizon has always been a constant in the artist‘s work, particularly in the series Tele-Vision, and it is also essential to the map pictures, which carry the same title and are numbered consecutively. Osten breaks the cartographic view by using the map as a surface for abstract painting, which nonetheless, in the interplay of map and color, is reminiscent of landscape. The land becomes a harbor, whole countries disappear into the sea, and stretches of land that were never near the water become steep seaside cliffs. Osten‘s painting is gestural, at times opaque and then transparent – anarchically he paints for himself a new world. The actual map is of almost no importance, serving only as a frame of reference for the artist‘s selection of color. “In contrast to the pocket calendars, the atlases provide a structure, which can be used for orientation or ignored.
In any case, they open a broad spectrum within which I can either expand on what is already there or paint over over it. I show nature without the mathematical coordinate system of mapmaking.”