“The Document Is a Figure”
by Matthias Goldmann
Deborah Sengl’s project The Last Days of Mankind originated as an exhibition at the Essl Museum in Klosterneuburg in early 2014, the year that marked the centennial of the beginning of World War I. The artist used 176 taxidermied white rats as actors presenting forty-four scenes from Karl Kraus’ documentary anti-war play The Last Days of Mankind (Die letzten Tage der Menschheit), which comprises 220 scenes and filled 800 pages in the original edition. Due to its length and stage directions, which include the appearance of 12,000 horses, the play has never been performed in full. This “horrible symphony of deeds”[i] is, as Kraus’s preface puts it, unsuited for human audiences and “intended for a theater on Mars.”[ii] There have been numerous attempts since the nineteen sixties to stage this unstageable play; Sengl’s installation was not the only one in 2014, though certainly it was one of the most commended. [iii]
One hundred years after World War I came to an end it is painfully clear that historians still don’t have much of an answer when it comes to the causes of The Great War. Both the form and content of Karl Kraus’ drama The Last Days of Mankind are as relevant as they were a century ago, and Deborah Sengl’s presentation still cuts to the core of the “horrible symphony of deeds” that fuel today’s news cycle. Her work captures the gist of Kraus’ 800-page play: There are no words.
“Conversion of horror into words”
Being lost for words, however, is only one aspect of the linguistic disaster that Kraus’ play chronicles. As he suggests in his Preface and in the Grumbler’s final monolog, language played a major role in making the war possible: “We were crippled by the newspaper printing presses before the cannons claimed their first victims.” They “hollowed out our hearts so that we could no longer imagine what it was going to be like.” The ubiquitous enthusiasm for war thrived on phrases and clichés that were not only detached from the reality of war but glamorized and romanticized it: “Sentences whose insanity is indelibly imprinted on the ear have grown into the music of time.” When more and more parts of the population chime in, “an unending cacophony of sound bites engulfs an entire era and swells to a final chorale of calamitous action.”
Reaching fever pitch, this “chorale” seemed to turn words into viruses and parasites that invaded human bodies and manipulated their hosts from the inside, ultimately overpowering them: “Platitudes stand on two legs — unlike men left with only one.” To the degree that the characters in The Last Days of Mankind no longer speak, but are being spoken, language becomes an agent, “the document is a figure.”[iv]
“Rats make good metaphors,” Kraus famously wrote in his satirical journal Die Fackel, and, as Sengl shows, they are an intriguing cast for the characters of his play. With their cocked heads, gaping mouths, or crooked claws, they appear as perfect embodiments of the “perpetrators and speakers, who are not flesh but blood, not blood but printer’s ink, shadows and puppets stripped down to their frantic emptiness.” Sengl essentially uses only this “frantically empty” metaphor to tell an entire story. When Kraus realized that the “cacophony” of the crowd had drowned out the language of satire and protest he had previously used to great effect, he moved “beyond the realm of Schillerian tragedy” and pioneered a literature based on copying and montage.
At least one third of Kraus’ play consists of quotes. He let people from all walks of life speak for themselves, especially journalists and the media. Repeating their words, Kraus exposed the reality of war they glossed over as well as the frighteningly real role their language played in the architecture of war. The reversal of meaning he achieved by simply repeating what others had said led, among other things, to one of the journalists he portrayed in his play suing him and her husband challenging him to a duel. His depiction of her is so vivid that her last name, Schalek, has become a byword for “war hawk,” and it is occasionally still used even today.
This is a testament to the power of the counter-“document” and the antidote “figure” Kraus created with his play. His pacifist linguistic activism included many other experiments on the level of form. His drama continually demonstrates why its “unimaginable” and unspeakable content prompts an ever more excessive succession of unusual and extreme forms of verbal, sonic, and visual representation.
“Operetta figures play out the tragedy of mankind”
Kraus’ Last Days of Mankind amounts to a relentless search for the ways in which meaning is attached to language and how this connection can be eroded or turned on its head — and how it eventually fades into obscurity. In his Preface, Kraus notes that after the war, those who “exulted in it” closed their ears to the “gramophone record” of their “heroic melodies.” The chorale had died out and its “sound bites” were rendered meaningless, empty shells of which their former speakers were loath to be reminded.
Deborah Sengl’s installation translates scenes from Kraus’ drama into the animal world and the silence of theatrical stills. We see her rat actors uttering, screaming, writing or pondering words and sentences, their acts of speaking frozen in time. Each of them shows the linguistic gestures of a human face in graphic detail, which makes them look like real speakers with familiar voices and personalities. These rodent features appear as miniature masks, as toy-land incarnations of the undead figures of speech that haunt Kraus’ play.
Inaudibly, Sengl’s visual references to Kraus’ drama quote specific passages spoken by its characters. Without a single word, they evoke language, and in so doing, they materialize Kraus’ collage space in which the voices of an era converge to form a larger picture. Additionally, they reflect the author’s deadpan documentary accuracy and let himspeak for himself. Down to the small props that are perfectly modeled after their historic environments, Sengl refrains from adding her own expressive fictional elements.
By citing both Kraus’ play and his creative method, Sengl’s installation produces a new narrative in the viewer’s mind that includes the author in the picture. Immersing Karl Kraus’ play in silence creates a powerful image that brings to the fore the element of not speaking that is not only at the heart of the collage technique but largely came to define Kraus’ role in the decades after the war.
“Come forward and be silent”
When almost all of his peers had joined the war-happy crowd and he had become a lone pacifist voice in the wilderness, Kraus completely withdrew from the public sphere and stopped publishing his journal, Die Fackel, for several months. When he finally broke his silence in December 1914, he called on others to join him: “In these times you should not expect any words of my own from me. […] Let him who has something to say come forward and be silent.”[v]
A parallel suggests itself here to the last sentence of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1922): “What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.” The philosopher, who knew Kraus and attended his lectures, not only drew a line like Kraus between sense and nonsense, but also valued what couldn’t be said. Earlier in his Tractatus he argued that values cannot be communicated through words, only through silence. He called his Tractatus an “an ethical work” with two parts, the written and the unwritten, and that it was the unwritten one that was important. This is not to imply any further connections between Kraus and Wittgenstein on this level, but only to illustrate that, at the time, Kraus was not the only one who pondered the profound qualities of silence as a medium. What is striking about Kraus is that he translated considerations usually confined to the ivory tower into public activism and that his unwritten works and unspoken words were to become a defining element of Kraus’ later life.
This development culminated in a 1934 issue of Die Fackel titled Why the Fackel Is Not Being Published. A poem he included in it reaffirmed that he would continue to remain silent and would further refuse to even say why. This prompted Bertolt Brecht to write a poem titled On the Significance of the Ten-Line Poem in No. 888 of the Fackel.[vi] It also led Elias Canetti to tear an issue of Die Fackel to pieces in front of Karl Kraus.
Deborah Sengl adds a layer to this history with her own approach to ‘communication without words’. The Vienna-born artist is known for her animal sculptures that play with forms of identity, deception, camouflage, and disguise. Through exaggeration, the visibility of such behaviors is increased to highlight themes that span the animal kingdom and the human world, creating figures that combine, for example, a sheep’s body with a wolf’s jaws, a lioness in a zebra skin, or a priest with a sheep’s head and a wolf’s snout.
“Masks of the tragic carnival”
Growing up as the daughter of two artists, Sengl was conscious at an early stage of her need to find her own forms that would set her apart from her parents or move in an altogether different direction. At the beginning of her academy years, she was still undecided as to whether she wanted to pursue a career in biology or in art. She eventually graduated from the Academy of Applied Arts Vienna but made her interest in biology an integral part of her artistic work. The use of biological matter in the form of taxidermied and modified bodies of animals has since become a distinctive mark of her art, which involves cooperation with a taxidermist that has now evolved over more than a decade. For her installation The Last Days of Mankind, Sengl paid great attention to the ethical aspect of working with the feeder rats. Only the outer layer of their bodies was used for the installation, the innards were given to the animals these rodents are bred to feed. Asked whether she would consider using a 3D printer instead of animals, Deborah Sengl remarked she has ruled out abandoning real animals as an artistic medium. Her figures are not made from any material that could form another physical composition; they consist of substances that animals grow through their own metabolism, over time. Sengl’s installation is composed of individual bodies, which makes them irreproducible in the sense that every organism is unique.[vii]
While her works are often labeled conceptual art, the immediacy of her animal figures outshines the concept behind them. Much like the punch line of a joke, their effect results from a split-second eruption of meaning that can be repeated but not equally achieved through explanation.
Wittgenstein wrote, “What we call ‘understanding a sentence’ has, in many cases, a much greater similarity to understanding a musical theme than we might be inclined to think.”[viii] This form of perception is the terrain in which jokes achieve their effects, in which Sengl’s hybrid figures make sense, and the “music of the time” Kraus described in his Preface to The Last Days of Mankind is “indelibly imprinted on the ear.” It is where Kraus resorts to silence to engage a war-contaminated language and what enables Sengl to boil down such an enormous field of complexity as the combination of Karl Kraus and a World War into a formula that could not be more simple and elegant.
Sengl’s tableaux also remind us that humans have always used animal figures to tell their most important tales and that in the course of a story such figures can shed meanings and take on new ones at every turn. Quite fittingly, the rats as well as the costumes and props are white, and Sengl’s installation was, of course, presented in a typical exhibition space — a “white cube.” Colors are used sparingly, for example, to mark blood, urine, and alcohol. And only the rats that represent the character of the Grumbler, construed to be a figure for Kraus himself, are black. Approaching Sengl’s predominantly white installation therefore feels like the lifting of a white curtain or scrim — in the context of the story she tells, the powerful effect of this large monochromatic and theatrical assemblage is reminiscent of the whiteness of military cemeteries and monuments to the war.
“Flesh for blood and blood for ink”
Once the viewer’s eyes get used to the whiteness, so to speak, a closer look reveals the artist’s painstaking attention to detail. The preparation, costuming, and posing of the rats as well as the meticulous work on miniature props involved a working process that spanned an entire year. While the rats themselves were prepared by a taxidermist according to drawings provided by Sengl, the artist produced the period furniture, facsimiles of contemporary newspapers, a factory owner’s top hat and bow tie, the sample cases of traveling salesmen, and infantry rifles, among other things.
These small details of Sengl’s installation point to the historical context of Kraus’ play. Some of the non-biological matter in Sengl’s tableaux — parts of the furniture, for instance — are miniature reproductions of Adolf Loos designs. Kraus and Loos were intimate friends, and Kraus said of him, “He speaks purer truth than most of my fellow citizens.” Kraus even compared his linguistic approach to Loos’ architectural one. Taking a cue from his friend, Kraus applied Loos’ aesthetic/ideological view to language: “The debasement of practical life by ornament demonstrated by Adolf Loos,” he wrote, “finds its counterpart in the permeation of journalism by elements of higher culture, which has led to a catastrophic confusion. Phraseology is the ornament of the mind.”
Other small details of Sengl’s installation contain further narrative and meta-narrative content. For example, we see a pregnant woman, played by a rat, writing a letter to her husband at the front in which she tries to explain why she has slept with another man. The rat is sitting at an ornate table writing the last line of the letter, a pile of tiny crumpled sheets of paper provides testimony to the difficulty of the situation. Another example is Sengl’s Grumbler, a black rat leaning over his desk and grasping his face with his paws. His blackness gives him the appearance of an outsider trying to break the spell of the “black magic” of printer’s ink.
Three of the tableaux are based not on drawings, but on Sengl’s accompanying large acrylic paintings with black backgrounds. Sengl calls them “Monumentalszenen” (monumental scenes) and gives them the title “Apocalypse” 1, 2 and 3. They show the last scene of the play, the drunken banquet of Austrian and German officers that gives way to (in Kraus’ words) fifty “Erscheinungen” (apparitions) projected onto a “Kolossalgemälde” (monumental painting) of “These Great Times.”
“The word died”
The first “Apocalypse” shows the raucous banquet where wine flows as though it were blood. The second depicts the most heinous of the projected atrocities, which includes a rat soldier’s head on a stick as red drips from the neck. The third presents the more expressionistic apparitions with rats holding masks in front of their faces. It includes “The Austrian Countenance,” the smiling face of an executioner at work who appears in the photograph used as a frontispiece of Kraus’ first edition of The Last Days of Mankind.
Taking a few steps back from these tableaux reveals how little it took Sengl in terms of materials and props to bring Kraus’ scenes to life. But it also reveals what it takes for rats to be good metaphors, particularly in our time when language is overrun by the two-legged lethal platitudes Kraus describes. They come to life in a silent environment where they need to reclaim vital parts of the language that have been excluded as rational arguments, when basic calls for humanity fall on deaf ears. Almost impossibly, the “theme” and the “figure” both expose and adapt so that every form of reasoning becomes something “we cannot talk about” and “must pass over in silence.” Holding a mirror to the Medusa monster of language was the only option Kraus saw left — that is, creating a silence in which the specter of the hawkish language had disappeared and “the word” could come to its senses again.
Tragically, while Kraus was initially able to make himself heard through his play, with the rise of the Nazis things took a turn for the even more unimaginable and unspeakable worse. To him, the language of National Socialism marked the end of language as he knew it: “The word died when that world awoke.” Sengl’s installation with its silent animal faces can thus be seen as a monument to Karl Kraus’ brand of linguistic activism that mourns its own failure but holds on to the hope embedded in the silent, musical regions of language. Letting animal faces “speak” to us adds a wonderful twist to this idea.
Courtesy of DoppleHouse Press
[ii] Karl Kraus, The Last Days of Mankind: The Complete Text, trans. Fred Bridgham and Edward Timms, p.1, New Haven & London, 2016. NB: All quotations as well as subtitles are from this text unless otherwise noted.
[iv] Kraus’ “Das Dokument ist Figur” has been variously translated as “The Document is figural,” “A document is a character” or “The document takes human shape.” As the German “Figur” most certainly translates as “figure,” it seems strange that all his translators should nitpick over word choice with the linguistic nitpicker-in-chief they surely know he was. My understanding is that Kraus chose “Figur” for its depth of meaning and connotation of agency, and I have therefore provided my own translation for this sentence (but only for this one).
Matthias Goldmann is a writer and translator. He has published essays, poetry, and stories, has created and exhibited computer text animations (archived at Deutsches Literaturarchiv Marbach), and has cooperated with visual artists and authors on various projects and publications including authoring the artist monograph Franz West: Man with a Ball (Rizzoli, 2014). His translations of essays and literary writings by Elfriede Jelinek, György Dalos, and Tim Parks, among others have appeared in anthologies, magazines and art catalogs. His most recent book translation is Franz West Notes. Writings 1975 – 2011, edited by Hans Ulrich Obrist and Ines Turian (Verlag Walther König, 2018). Goldmann also works as an editor with academic publishing companies in Austria and the United States.