‘Art is nothing but a survival skill,

We should never lose sight of this fact’

Thomas Bernhard, Old Masters: A Comedy

“It’s not about walking in someone else’s shoes, but it’s about stretching them” notes Hermes Payrhuber, discussing shoe stretchers’ rebellious undertone and why he included a pair in his installation To The People Of New York – Catalogue Raisonne, Erotic Ghost Stories For Adults at The New York Public Library last year. Constant drift against the necessity to reach conclusions remains a crucial element for the Austrian-born and New York-based artist. Expanding the possibilities of self-expression as opposed to fitting into existing confines, Payrhuber delves into riveting abundance of the journey rather than compulsion of the destination in his multimedia work.

Ode to the Rope with a Knot with a Hole, for Thomas Bernhard, his recent installation at the Austrian Cultural Forum as part of the group exhibition DIS-PLAY/RE- PLAY, resumes this fluid state through use of architectural form and everyday materials. Stemming from Bernhard’s short novel Walking, the installation considers walking as a contemplative exercise and passage towards the subliminal. Composed of triangular structures accentuated with knotted robes in various colors, Payrhuber’s installation invites the audience to stray through these assemblies the artist casually spray painted in an off tone of purple. Prompting a territory of possibilities and open-ended narratives, the installation is elevated by a vinyl background reading “Asher Yatzar”—a Hebrew blessing—as well as loosely juxtaposed letters echoing the exhibition title in the same purple hue. In an exhibition that investigates alternative modes of art display, Payrhuber’s work delivers a compelling statement on the ephemeral state of making and experiencing art. Osman Can Yerebakan, co-curator of Visual AIDS 2015 exhibition Party Out Of Bounds: Nightlife As Activism Since 1980 talked with Payrhuber about his influences, central themes in his practice, and his journey as an artist living with HIV.

Osman Can Yerebakan: You once stated that you only consider the work successful when no explanation of causality or meaning can satisfy all our curiosity. When do yo consider an artwork complete?

Hermes Payrhuber: I'm thinking about Shirley Bassey’s song Where Do I Begin, and continuing with Alexandre Kojeve, who once said, “When history is completed, humanity (the spirit) takes refuge, after the final end of historical man, in the book. And the latter is therefore no longer time but eternity.” The work does not seek to propagate one particular perspective, but rather to show the plurality of current perspectives. Gathering what is left, sorting out the small and trying to comprehend the large, reminiscing while opening, closing, reopening, searching and not finding or finding what was not even known to be lost. To re-direct, to set into perpetual motion, and to push… The work is made up of gradual guessing: the dream is to suggest it. Only suggestion permits the passage from one world to the other. The law of all work is to work against time. The work indeed is characterized by its perpetual refusal to put any matter to rest.

OCY: Your work stands against singular identities, be it medium, genre or narrative. In this sense, your practice seems to nourish from various interdisciplinary sources that directly or indirectly weave into art making. Can you talk about your inspirational origins?

HP: I’d like to mention here my exhibition at The New York Public Library, To The People Of New York – Catalogue Raisonne, Erotic Ghost Stories For Adults, dedicated to Aby Warburg, his influential Mnemosyne Atlas, and the 100th year anniversary of the Picture Collection in 2015. And thanks so much to Olga Neuwirth’s composition of the video Hither Thither.

“I lost my heart to her…”

Aby Warburg had just turned twenty-three and had arrived in Florence. Walking through cobblestones, he found himself in front of Santa Maria Novella. Centuries earlier, Leon Battista Alberti had given this gloomy Gothic structure a polychrome façade of splendid proportions. “Her”, that is a young maiden with a large copper tray on her head in a painting of Domenico Ghirlandaio’s Birth of John the Baptist. On the tray lays a ripe pomegranate, fleshy and slightly open like her lips, a visible echo of the maiden’s sensuality. In his rich correspondence with his friend, he confessed “and in the days of preoccupation that followed I saw her everywhere. In many of the works of art I had always liked, I discovered something of my Nymph. I lost my reason.” Spending the last years of his life in the hospital, he liked to think back on her image as he had described it to his friend: “as though the most beautiful butterfly I have ever pinned down suddenly bursted through the glass and danced mockingly upwards into the blue air, and flied away.”

It is perhaps for this reason that Warburg spoke to butterflies for long hours. It is perhaps in this sense that he listened to them. Perhaps butterflies represent a new manifestation of the nymph, which haunted him his entire life. His unfinished picture atlas Mnemosyne Atlas—organized not alphabetically or according to subject but by ‘elective affinities’, the secret intimacies that Warburg himself intuited between its volumes—was the massive and fragmentary constellation of images that Warburg obsessively tended and reorganized.

The Atlas, wrote Warburg, was ‘a ghost story for adults’. It invented a kind of phantasmic science of the image, a ghost dance in which the most resonant gestures and expressions its creator had discovered in the course of his career return with a spooky insistence, suddenly cast into wholly new relationships.

In a sense, the Mnemosyne Atlas has never really existed, at least not in the form Warburg envisioned. The project was never completed, and only ever constituted a provisional version of its eventual incarnation in book form. The panels themselves were lost and a final arrangement on the Atlas, however, survives as a series of 79 photographs.

Absolutely inspirational!

OCY: On the other hand, your materials—often time rigid, raw and unruffled—and your way of employing them in your work diverge from a direct narrative on HIV/AIDS experience. How does such experience influence your work?

HP: Most probably the easiest way is looking at my book Thin gummy. The book consists of images never shown before, film stills as a matter of fact of a “potlatch,” performed just before the doors opened. It was filmed by the amazing Joshua Sanchez. It was part of the exhibition The Prophecy of The Lake, proposing a series of encounters with objects, text, light and sound. The sound was a recording of two poems, recited by Kazu Makino/Amadeo Pace (Blond Redheads) and Andrew Roth. The exhibition title refers to a silent feature film. A love story, though censored due to its “social critique” (a white woman falling in love with an indigenous man) and, as a result, shelved and lost. There is no remaining evidence to prove its existence, and thus, it is open to endless interpretations.

Moving between factual and fictional, between the concrete and the metaphorical… It is a passage at the same time into dissolution and transcendence of a form. Forms that are beyond judgment present great power of fascination and they are uncomfortable for any order to settle. Structure is something else one calls forth meaning after the other. Like few ordinary words that are ingeniously placed together to quietly form a sentence – all motifs become jigsaw pieces, which can be reinterpreted and reconstructed with infinite possibilities. Working on this installation set into motion an alliterative principle: the works unfold like an accordion and “rhymes” with each other and their counterparts in the “other world.”

OCY: There is a type of serenity and fragility in your work that can also be traced in works by other Conceptualists such as Jim Hodges or Felix Gonzalez-Torres. What does this visual calmness chronicle in terms of depicting the queer experience?

HP: It brings me joy to spend time looking at Jim Hodges and Felix Gonzalez-Torres works!

My very own experience most likely is that of a search. A search that wants to look towards a future. For what it could be traced and therefore can never be reached in the present. A search for “otherness.” A loss, a certain distance of the real. Nothing remains but shifts between things, between desire and seduction.

OCY: Your recent installation at the Austrian Cultural Forum is a study on intervention into the space and performative aspect of viewing and experiencing art. You invite your audience to maneuver around an arrangement that includes mundane objects fetched from the core of life and transformed into central pieces in an installation. How do you consider this state of in-betweenness: art and life, space and emptiness, and existing and perishing?

HP: For your last question I would like to invite the words of Mr. Kristian Sotriffer, whom I am forever grateful to have met and I had the enormous honor of a text by him for my first book Perpeteuum Mobile, 1996. An exhibition at the Theseustempel Museum of Fine Arts in Vienna

Mr. T visits Hermes P.

All our tedious knowledge is useless, if we don’t allow it to be relieved of ballast, emaciated and light like a thread moving in the whispering wind. Whoever touches it, pulls it, receives knowledge. Because touching it makes it possible to be approached by the inconceivable – which cannot be understood or pinned down.

We watch the thread flying. On one of the air lakes of Hermes Payrhuber it will find a pier. The artist has left traces leading there. He does not follow them, does not look for them, because Finding is nothing,” Mr. Teste writes. You carry a big weight if what you have found, becomes part of you.”

Mr. Edmond Teste is a phantasy created by Paul Valery, an imaginary figure who accompanies the breezy signs of Hermes P. (why should he be named after the hasty herald of the gods, if he didn’t behave like him?). He likes to leave his tender creations afloat, moving in space, wandering and sailing like balloons or zeppelins.

When we imagine traveling in a balloon”, we read, we can create the feelings of the balloon traveler with our thoughts and mental powers.” Hermes P. creates an analogical form by exploring and constructing suspending devices, which offer accommodation for his dallying thoughts. Their lightness makes them ideal for crossing the ether while intoning soft music.

Once more we give Paul Valery’s Mr. Teste the opportunity to interfere. I only appreciate the lightness of all things”, he says, or the difficulty to understand them, to achieve them”. And so Hermes P. continues explaining himself as Mr. Teste: I take extreme care to measure the stages, so that I don’t tie myself down… For what do I care, how much I know?”

Kristian Sotriffer


Payruber's work was recently included in the exhibition DIS-PLAY/RE-PLAY at the Austrian Cultural Forum, New York, reviewed by The New York Times and Artforum.

Osman Can Yerebakan is a curator and art writer based in New York. Osman holds an MA in Art Management from the Fashion Institute of Technology. Among his fields of interest are fluid states of audience interaction, kinship between literature and fine arts, and performance of identity as political declaration. His writings regular appear on Art Observed, ArtSlant, Baxter St/Camera Club of New York, Filthy Dreams and various other publications. He has upcoming curatorial projects at Radiator Gallery, Equity Gallery and The Center for Book Arts.

Hermes Payrhuber