Knieholz – Pain is Bliss


*This is a longer text about my KNIEHOLZ series. For an abstract and more pictures please visit the KNIEHOLZ page.*


The future is ascetic. And full of joy.

Redemptive suffering is one of the central themes in Christianity, if not its inner core, in view of the fact that the Christian God is one who was born just to die on the Cross to take all sins of mankind away.
Throughout the ages, countless Saints, individuals and whole religious orders saw it (and still see it) as their sacred purpose to sacrifice their whole lives to suffer for the faults of others and to 'expiate' them by taking their place, by suffering on their behalf. Some developed almost superhuman powers while bed-ridden for decades.

While the topic of redemptive suffering is already present in my CONTEMPLATIONS (2017-19) where I micro-handwrite the original texts of female Western mystics on my photographs in order to explore the overlaps of spirituality and sensuality, I wanted to direct the interest on on a much more secular field with these Kneeling Logs (German: Knieholz) by asking for today's socio-cultural implications of a only seemingly outdated concept like redemptive suffering in a period of our history which seems critical not only for the future of mankind, but for the planet as a whole.


The question is: How can we redeem, i.e. counterbalance all the faults/sins we committed – as a collective, and also each of us individually –, and that we still commit every day and which lead us to this point where the poles of this planet are melting, the forests are being cleared much faster than they can recover, the oceans are full of plastic, and species die out at a dizzying pace, at least those we don't need for the overexploiting industrial mass production of meat.

When reflecting upon the implications and entanglements of the apocalyptic status quo, echoes of the almost forgotten or at least furiously rejected concept of Original Sin emerge from the depths of memory: We didn't lay the groundwork for the catastrophe, our ancestors did, and now we should pay the bills? But unlike the moral obligation that can be argued over, this one is very real: We will pay, we already are paying, and the only open issue is: how much? And can we avert bankruptcy?
We're in this boat together, so there's no point in insisting on the fact that we maybe lead an impeccable life (but then: who really did?) and aren't responsible for the downfall.


The good news is: renunciation doesn't necessarily have to be annoying. 
It all depends on our mindsets, and that's where it's again worth turning back and trying to learn from those mystics who managed over thousands of years to transform their suffering into grace, their pain into bliss. Lidwina of Schiedam (1380-1433), on the sickbed since she was 15 until she died with 53, overtaken by spasms and almost fainting from agony throughout her life, didn't ask for her pains to be diminished. Quite the contrary: she asked for more, convinced that she would be able to bear it, able to burn that pain inside her, to transform it into grace and joy for others. We may today believe in this kind of metaphysical swap or we may outrightly reject it – but by doing what she did, Lidwina escaped her human condition of the suffering and solitary individual (and let's be honest: suffering at some point in life is unavoidable) and entered into some kind of “community of sufferers”, i.e. of all mankind. She didn't suffer for the righteous ones, for the pious ones, but for the sinners, for the criminals, for the outcasts, which also means that she identified with them, that she knew that she wasn't free of flaws herself, and that the other ones weren't bad or evil in themselves. A heroic act of compassion, I would say. And the only feelings stronger than the agony of her pains were the otherworldly joy and overabundance of bliss that she was drown in while she suffered this way.


What may sound quite paradoxical to today's ears – bliss through pain – is the reason I created those Kneeling Logs, and while I wouldn't recommend anyone to follow Lidwina's example (modern posthumous diagnosis suggests that she had a severe form of multiple sclerosis), I do want to persist on stressing this particular attitude with which she endured 38 years of suffering, and I want to ask what we can learn from her today.

For one thing is clear: We need to give up a lot of habits if we want to preserve this planet for the generations to come, and we need to renounce to many conveniences if we want it to recover from all the harm we caused it over the last centuries, at least since the beginnings of industrialization.
But by disconnecting from consumerism, from addictions and from the 'society of the spectacle' in which our desires are constantly manipulated and our feelings anesthetized, and by reconnecting to natural rhythms and needs, I'm convinced we can access a level of joy which is infinitely deeper than the fast and superficial gratifications of the neoliberal availability of everything everytime.


No need to be religious to be part of such renewal – religion is a very personal starting point and rich reference field for me, and not a final cause; powerful contemporary movements like Fridays for Future or Extinction Rebellion have rarely any points of contact with traditional religions. But what everyone of us actually can do, regardless of their beliefs – it almost sounds trivial, as it's all so well-known – is to switch to a sustainable lifestyle, to be aware that our decisions and acts don't just concern ourselves but that they have an impact on the whole ecosystem and on other living beings.

Many people obviously don't have this kind of sensibility and don't care about anything else than getting rich on the expenses of others, the global political situation is the most obscene depiction of such mentality. That's where redemptive suffering comes into play – besides all legitimate fight against the destruction of the planet and its inhabitants. But you will never be able to convince all mankind to pull together in the same direction, you will never change those corrupted by power and money, or those adoring and following them. But instead you can do a million things in your own life which seem useless if you look at the big picture but which become very powerful if you imagine that million or even billions of people can do them: don't turn the heating too high in winter to compensate one person who overheats; do vice versa in summer with air conditioning; don't use plastic bags, maybe even take part in a #oceancleanup to make up for someone who buys five plastic bags every time he goes shopping; take a train for short distances, there are enough others who fly; eat less meat and fish, there are still so many people who consume unethically produced meat on a daily basis; buy regional products and grow your own plants if you have the possibility, many people don't even check the label on a food to find out where it comes from; I could continue here eternally, and the possibilities are virtually limitless. There's also no need to be a Saint and to let go of everything, I'm convinced that just a few changes in our behaviour can be sufficient if enough people jump on the bandwagon. And let's again think of Lidwina: the consciousness of doing something for others, something for the planet is only a deprivation of one's own 'fun' at first sight, if we take a closer look it can be rewarding and fulfilling to waive some alleged rights (granted by whom anyway?) in the consciousness that our act serves a greater cause.


But it's not only this intended purpose of saving the planet and of salvation of mankind which can transform our sacrifice into joy, it's also the act of the sacrifice itself which can bring us a deep satisfaction. Acting more responsibly in relation to our environment also opens up new levels of self consciousness and mindfulness, by detoxing the world we also detox ourselves. There can be also joy in pain, all the mystics knew and experienced this, and if not in the pain itself, then in the act of enduring it. This, too, is something which is quickly forgotten in a time where anesthesia is a omnipresent solution to all problems on all levels.

The Knieholz (Kneeling Log) is a hybrid. It is sacred and profane at the same time. I didn't want to use a tool which is overdetermined by either a religious or a libidinous sphere. The Kneeling Log isn't for a church, but neither for the darkroom. Nevertheless it's an artifact of meditation, of prayer, of contemplation, of expiation.
On a formal level, I only use already existing pieces of regular firewood (a largely available and renewable resource) that I get as gifts when I ask people for them, and I only use gold from a local gold beating manufacurer of my hometown (Kühny Blattgoldfabrik, Augsburg). Technically, the gold is applied in a traditional and ancient manner, using only natural materials like chalk / gesso, clay, natural glue, linseed oil, turpentine and shellack.

Like in all my newer works, I write on the finished pieces or carve some text in them, thus destroying the golden surface to reveal its red (clay) and white (chalk) foundations and once again stressing the sacrality of the object with these colors. But unlike my CONTEMPLATIONS series, the text on the Kneeling Logs becomes fragmentary, references are intentionally concealed, authorship becomes questionable. The greatest joy begins after the Ego has disappeared.

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