This is not the first time Costantino Ciervo has conceived an exhibition for a church. In 1994 he collaborated with Ottomar Kiefer on “Il terzo escluso” (The Third Excluded), a work installed in the Church of San Martino di Lupari in Padua. The artists mounted digital displays made of neon tubes (so-called “seven-segment displays”) in the church’s apse, creating an installation that brought the words “IL TERZO ESCLUSO” (The Third is Excluded) into the space, letter by letter, via what is known as ASCII Code.
ASCII Code, which consists solely in the digits 0 and 1, is an encoding standard for electronic characters in the computer age. Dominated by the digits 0 and 1, the binary code only recognizes that which is symbolically “false” (0) or “true” (1). There is nothing in between. As indicated by the title of the work — seen in wood on the top step of the stairs leading to the sanctuary — “The third is excluded,” which is to say there is no third possibility. Visitors stood confronted with this “true” or “false” mathematical logic in the church space, where their own human longings, expectations, and uncertainties lead them to wonder: Is this the “truth”? What do we understand by “truth”? Is “true” and “false,” “black” and “white” all there is? A viewer entering the church space would have had to pause, reflect, and think. That moment of reflection — the heightening of awareness — is an essential part of Ciervo’s art.
Costantino Ciervo was born in Naples in 1961. Despite studying Economics and Political Science at the University of Economics and Trade in Naples from 1980 to 1982, his desire to become an artist won out, and he has been practicing art ever since. In 1984 he moved to West Berlin and in 1988, in addition to working as an artist, he began studying philosophy and art history at the Technical University of Berlin, a course of study he pursued for three years. Ciervo continues to live and work in Berlin to this day. His work has featured in numerous exhibitions, including not least the 1992 Venice Biennale.
Thoughts of politics and mechanisms of the world economy, the phenomena of globalization, society, and culture have been a constant in Ciervo’s life, as this rough outline of his biography might suggest. Visiting him in his studio, I came to know him as a serious, thoughtful, and intelligent artist whose conversation returns again and again to current events and the fundamental questions of existence they raise. His art merges historical and meta-historical levels: a specific, contemporary-historical background always highlights a “timeless” component as well, drawing to mind a number of fundamental questions and aspects that remain essentially unchanged since the dawn of time. Costantino Ciervo is an artist who, while in the midst of the information age, questions and critiques the state of society and of the individual without finger-wagging or pessimistically denouncing them. Instead he embraces a fundamentally positive attitude toward the world and his fellow human beings — a mindset he owes not least to the fact that he views art as having the potential to inspire and raise awareness.
For his exhibition at St. Jodokus in Bielefeld, he has devised an artistic parcours in which five works, supplemented by three drawings, are arranged in what he has deemed the most appropriate sequence. He has titled the exhibition “exsolutio,” a Latin term that translates to mean both “liberation” and “redemption.” The word conjures a basic human longing, and a backdrop for all the works on view here.
Ciervo’s “exodus,” an installation in the church’s original foyer, features three mannequins whose heads have been replaced with white plates. Projected onto their faces (via a mini-video projector each holds in its right hand) are the holy scriptures of a monotheistic world religion: the Jewish Tanakh, the Christian Bible, and the Islamic Koran. Wind turns the pages of the books as seen on the projections in the respective reading direction, from left to right or right to left. The three mannequins, completely covered with dried chickpeas, stand around a galvanized zinc tub filled with rice. In it is a video monitor, its screen showing an overcrowded refugee boat adrift in the sea. Ciervo has observed that all of the world’s religions touch on themes of flight, migration, and exodus. One thinks not least of Moses’s exodus leading the Jewish people out of Egypt and into the Promised Land. It is a theme that connects all world religions and to this day still constitutes an archetype of human existence. The notion of flight or escape — which is closely tied to the idea of redemption — is something that all religions have in common, even though all three mannequins (supported by the multitude of chickpeas, a symbol of their followers) self-referentially point the projector only at themselves. This theme of displacement, more topical today than it has been for a long time, has no end; a short video clip (which Ciervo leaves playing in an endless loop) implies that humans fleeing their circumstances essentially never reach their destination. In a symbolism similar to the chickpeas, the rice stands for humanity. Like the chickpeas it is also a staple food for billions and alludes to needs of people all over the world — human beings who are at once similar to one another and incredibly diverse.
Also installed in the foyer is “Contiguous,” a work that appears behind a partition wall built into the south aisle extension. The installation consists of three small, pedal-type trash cans with lids. The lids stand open to reveal three circular monitors, each showing a human striding naked in a black-and-white video captured from above. They are people of different ethnicities: one is Asian, one is European, another African; they walk across a map of the world that rotates in different directions, water washing over it every now and then. While walking, they also look up at intervals and ask “Who am I?” in English or in their native language. The work, as the title suggests, is about the question of borders in today’s globalized world, about crossing continents, about migration, perhaps even about flight again. As the water in the work illustrates, borders are becoming increasingly fluid and blurred. The sense of belonging to one nation or another is dissolving, which in turn raises new questions as to the identity of both individuals and societies. Polished to a high sheen, the trash cans point to a paradox of life under capitalism: sterile aestheticization on the one hand, consumer-driven throw-away society on the other. Is this what the drive to overcome boundaries is all about?
Titled “The Ten Commandments,” a third installation on the west wall of the cloister consists of ten, neon-lit words that a 2007 article in the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera named as hallmarks of modern-day capitalist societies, namely “work, market, authority, respect, reward, sacrifice, order, merit, competition, education.” Notably absent from this decalogue are words such as “love,” “justice,” or “solidarity.” The linking element is the figure of a runner, a sculpture cut out of steel mirror and consequently appearing as a silhouette. Although the mirror darkens the figure so that the runner is perceived only as a shadowy outline, heightening the impression of the runner’s speed, the figure also reflects the viewer’s own image back at them. Profit-oriented societies’ compulsion toward ever-greater acceleration, i.e. to an endless increase in growth and efficiency, is accentuated by the runner’s pose in the curve. The figure cannot stop without toppling over. Again, the idea of escape with the goal of “exsolutio” (redemption) is implicit in this installation, but here it refers more to the individual than society at large. Just as human beings, embodied by the runner, endlessly speed up in search of a better, more optimized life, they also appear to be running from themselves.
On the east wall of the cloister is the 2013 video sculpture “Try Again.” Here, escape is to be understood on a rather small scale, as the pulling away of one’s hands from an opponent who stands ready to swat them. The work centers on a well-known game of reflexes in which two people hold their hands together, fingertips touching. One person tries to slap the other’s hands from this position; the latter has to pull his or her hands away before they are hit. Once a person has been hit, it becomes his or her turn to try swat the other person’s hands. The diversion plays out on a monitor on the left in an installation housed in rectangular box made of polished stainless steel. Two adolescent boys can be seen playing the game, which is both competitive and demands quick reflexes. The context eludes the viewer at first: The hands held together, shown in close-up, are at first glance reminiscent of hands held together in prayer — a behavior that implies humility. Yet it quickly reveals itself to be the aggressive game of reflexes just described, with the rash pulling away and slapping of hands. The hands return again and again to the misleading starting position. On the right side of the stainless steel box is a prism with the words “Try Again” engraved on its three reflecting sides. Each slap attempt is accompanied by a rotation of the prism, so that the words “Try Again” repeat themselves over and over. The command follows and accompanies every attempt with the repetition of a prayer wheel, calmly counterpointing its tension and aggressive release. Or else the words (spoken, as it were, by a third person, the viewer reflected in the sculpture, or their own inner voice) urge the protagonists to continue playing the game, as if under duress, even though there is no winner since it can be continued endlessly. Liberation from this violence and endless spiral of reciprocal demonstrations of power — presented here as nothing more than a game played by pubescent youths — does not seem possible.
“Flip Flop,” the last installation near the sanctuary, consists of a monitor embedded in an enamel washbasin that, in a church context, evokes a holy water receptacle. Here the focus is on the individual, the single human being. One might say Ciervo’s artistic parcours takes us from phenomena of society at large to interpersonal relationships, and finally to a look at the unique individual; and yet just as the first works have to consider the individual as part of larger society, the latter examines the formative impact of the existing social system on individual behavior.
In “Flip Flop,” the washbasin is covered over by a board, through which the video can only be viewed via a small, circular hole. It shows a man clad in black trousers, white shirt, and a red tie as he balances barefoot on two parallel wooden beams. The camera captures him from above. Below him, under the beams, swirls a menacing maelstrom of water. The man holds a stack of papers in his hand. It is not possible to make out what or whether anything is written on them. He nervously leafs through the stack, holding it over his head toward the camera again and again, almost pleadingly. He turns and sways on the beams. In addition to the threat from below (which he appears to pay little heed to) he occasionally glances up from his papers to find strange, winged insects, which on closer inspection turn out to be winged chickpeas. Apparently annoyed, he tries to shoo them away with the paper, though his efforts are only temporarily successful. The first installation interprets the chickpeas as symbolic of basic human necessity; they might similarly represent basic human needs here. And yet persistent as they are, the man seems to want nothing to do with them. Dissatisfied with the pieces of paper, he crumples some and puts them in his trouser pocket. Others he throws away. Finally, he begins to stuff the papers in his mouth as well. This ultimately triggers a gag reflex that causes him to lose his balance and plunge into the depths below.
This particular work almost allegorically speaks to the life of the individual in today’s capitalist society: Its focal points are labor and performance; pursuit of maximal profits seems to override any other interests. Human beings and their needs are treated as secondary and even environmental destruction (a looming catastrophe possibly symbolized by the maelstrom) is taken in stride. The critical conclusion of the video raises questions as to how precarious an individual’s life is in this system and whether or not either escape or “redemption” from it is possible.
The title of the work (“Flip Flop”) might be a source of some confusion, as it certainly is not a reference to the popular summer footwear. The term comes from the field of electronics, where “flip-flop” denotes an electronic circuit that can transmit data so long as the circuit occupies one of two stable states. However, the circuit can only store data when it is given a constant power supply. It could be a fitting analogy for Ciervo’s work: Each of the wooden beams signifies a stable state, the man poised between them — constantly “charged” with tension — symbolizes the connection. Numerous reports, studies, and surveys point to perpetual stress and tension in today’s society as a requisite for its functioning.
Ciervo’s work, as the title shows, is steeped in the Information Age. His works integrate the latest technologies in today’s digital world. Ciervo is often associated with the 1960s Fluxus movement, a comparison attested not least by the presence of his works in the FLUXUS+ museum collection in Potsdam or his affiliation with the former Galerie Vostell in Berlin. Wolf Vostell was a co-initiator of Fluxus. A trailblazer of happenings, performance-, multimedia- and environmental art, he (along with Joseph Beuys) was one of the best-known German artists in the 1960s. Vostell — whose goal was to make social contexts visible and in doing so, expand the viewer’s consciousness — also counts as a pioneer of video art. He was the first artist to integrate a television set into a work of art (1958) and also built acoustic-electronic devices in his works. At the heart of Fluxus was the transfer of art into everyday life and vice versa: art is life; life is art. Yet unlike Vostell’s Fluxus movement, Ciervo’s art is never loud. It has nothing of the destructive provocation common to art of the 1960s. His works are clear, meticulously executed, and sometimes embody a cool, sterile aesthetic; they are quiet and provocative. They make you think.
Apart from that, he does combine the latest technologies with the simplest materials. One thinks of the chickpeas, the rice, the zinc tub, the washbasin — an aspect that also places Ciervo’s art in the tradition of Italy’s Arte Povera, a movement from the 1960s and 1970s. Contemporary technology on the one hand; simplicity and “poor” materials on the other.
Ciervo, who is interested in mathematics and technology, strikes a contrast between the world of algorithms and that of creative-instinctual nature, between the digital world and the analogue one. Many consider the worlds incompatible; combining them is a source of discomfort. As Ciervo himself remarked in a 2005 interview: “We are experiencing, subconsciously rather than consciously, a global aggression on the part of the biopower, which is to say the capitalist, hierarchical structures, and through the use of technology. This aggression transpires in a mythified way in a society that would have us believe that it is progressive and liberal. In fact, what we are witnessing a science and progress that can penetrate any being or entity, but we (the being) cannot penetrate science.” Here, Ciervo articulated a key question that would become even more urgent in the coming decade: that of where the human being stands in a globalized world that is not only informationally interconnected but also and increasingly controlled. The fact that he raises critical awareness for this world without depicting the development as an unstoppable horror scenario — his attempts to demystify this state in his art and to share his insights with viewers in the age of information overload — makes his art an essential voice in modern society. That voice should be listened to and considered.
Mercy: Its Reflection in ArtConstantino Ciervo
Dear congregation, dear worship service visitors,
I am delighted to be invited here, and as an artist I feel honored to speak about mercy as it relates to art, and of course in particular to the works of mine exhibited here.
I’m sure many of you here are asking yourselves: What do these works of art mean? What do they have to do with the Church? And what do they have to do with a holy sanctuary like this one? What does the profane nudity of people enclosed in little, stainless steel trash cans — the kind you see in bathrooms — have to do with anything? How do mannequins — usually seen in storefronts — relate to this context?
What do the words in neon red lettering — a type normally used for street advertising — have to do with this space? Or the drawings of oversized insects and labyrinths, for that matter? Or the video showing the hands of two adolescents engaged in an aggressive game of reflexes? The business-attired man in the little washbasin, seen recklessly balancing on two red beams as a treacherous whirlpool swirls below him? And: What could any of this have to do with mercy? I admit it’s not easy to explain, especially in the few minutes available to me. But I will try. Because while it is true that a tree takes several years to grow, it only takes a few moments to plant it. Its growth also demands good soil and water. So if the water is the good will, and we are the soil, then we can begin.
The linchpin of my exhibition “exsolutio” here at St. Jodokus is the installation “exodus,” which is located in the original church foyer. Three mannequins covered in chickpeas have porcelain plates for heads, onto which the sculptures themselves project images via video projectors they hold in their hands: From left to right we see a Koran, a Bible, and a Torah, their pages turning back and forth in the wind. The books hover over a refugee boat that appears to be navigating a sea of rice. In my interpretation, the three holy books are written by the one and only God who, for me, — but I also think for theology — represents the synthesis of love, justice, and mercy, the three most important, overarching concepts of existence.
Now of course one might interject: “But we are in a Christian church. What does the Koran have to do with us?”
A great deal it turns out, because as Pope Francis has also explained, the God of the Koran is the same as the God of the Bible and the Torah. Moreover, I learned that the most quoted and pivotal prophet in all three books is Moses. Moses, as we know, was commanded by God to free his people from slavery and to lead them to the Promised Land — a symbol of freedom and bliss. It was a journey that took decades, one could say almost a lifetime. One that was not without great difficulties, betrayals, and violence. But for all that, Moses did not give up, did not abandon his people even as they betrayed him. It was not a sense of obligation that motivated and sustained him, but his love for God and for the brothers and sisters that were his people. A covenant sanctioned by the Ten Commandments.
Moses was chosen by God; but Moses also chose God. Though he feared the burden of the task for which he also had to leave his family, he had faith in God’s love. I view Moses as a beautiful metaphor for what each of us is or could be. Every one of us could be a little Moses. Every one of us is fleeing from something. Every one of us aspires to freedom. Who among us has not been ensnared by hatred, by intolerance, by superficiality? What group of people has not been a migrant at some point in its history? What nation has not suffered hunger, injustice, and war? What mother or father has not fought to protect his or her own child? How often have we forgiven our children for mistakes they have made? How often have we fled work that only stresses and alienates us? How often have we sought our freedom and dignity in the workplace? How often have we lost our freedom because we lost our jobs?
Each of us can choose to become more like Moses or less so. We can choose to think only of ourselves and of our own interests, or to follow the path of charity and mercy. This more than just a mere moral, ethical, and religious choice; it also has to do with wisdom and practical benefit.
But for now, let’s return to the “exodus” sculpture. The chickpea “skin” on the figures and sea of rice represent humanity. Because they are many; although they resemble one another, each is unique in itself. The chickpeas cling to the body of figures that represent the sacred scriptures. I use the word “cling” as a synonym for “to bind” or “to adhere.” Just as characters in the Bible are bound by the Ten Commandments to the Word of God. And the Word of God, as I mentioned at the beginning, is love, justice, and mercy.
But mercy is more than just compassion; it also involves reflection and understanding.
As Baruch Spinoza, a seventeenth-century philosopher of Jewish origin, tells us, “Do not laugh at human actions, do not weep at them or hate them, but seek to understand them.”
Thus the works in the cloister address the causes of the exodus not as a historical phenomenon, but as a contemporary one. We are humanity, the “chosen people,” and the culture and ideology of commerce — which operates purely for profit — are analogous to Pharaoh Ramses’s Egypt.
The ten neon words offer a summary to that effect: work, merit, authority, order, respect, market, competition, education, sacrifice, and reward. In this configuration, they represent a kind of new religion that holds considerable sway over our lives. We can see that this concept is totally devoid of such words as solidarity, justice, love, or tolerance.
Made of reflective sheet steel, the runner figure that accompanies these neon words represents an athlete at the moment of acceleration. So the common denominator for the ten terms we see is not reflection, but speed.
Could it be that we are caught up in the speed of things?
One might wonder, then, why these words appear in a church rather than, say, a stock exchange? My answer is this: The church is a sacred place, because it is a place of truth. And the goal of art is to use symbolic, visual language to get closer to the truth. In that sense, it isn’t that art competes with the sacred, with truth, so much as enters into a dialogue with it.
And though it might not seem so at first glance: Just as a tree is planted in the form of a seed, all of my art is about a dimension of the human condition that does not run counter to the religious context, Christianity in particular.
About the artistConstantino Ciervo
Costantino Ciervo ciervo.org wurde 1961 in Neapel (Italien) geboren und lebt und arbeitet seit 1984 in Berlin. Ciervo ist einer der führenden Pioniere der interaktiven Videoinstallation und Skulptur. Er studierte Ökonomie und Politikwissenschaften an der Universität für Wirtschaft und Handel, Neapel und Philosophie und Kunstgeschichte an der Technischen Universität, Berlin. 1993 nahm er an der Biennale von Venedig teil. Er wurde 2004 für den 11. Marler Videokunstpreis und 2006 für den renommierten Käthe-Kollwitz-Preis der Akademie der Künste (Berlin) nominiert. 2009 erfolgte die Aufnahme in den Deutschen Künstlerbund. 2012 war Ciervo Stipendiat der Hans und Charlotte Krull Stiftung, Berlin.