Born in Löbau, Gemany, 1963
Lives and works in Pratzschwitz and Dresden, Germany

Thomas Baumhekel

Dresden-based artist Thomas Baumhekel writes Chinese characters despite the fact that he neither grew up with the Chinese language nor studied it in the conventional way. He succumbed to the fascination the characters exude thanks to their formal composition, and then gradually approached the content via the form. This does not mean, however, that the texts which he puts to paper – mostly of Taoist or Buddhist content – are not carefully selected.

Back when he was studying painting at the Dresden Hochschule für Bildende Künste he developed a idiosyncratic stock of images and symbols, a graphic style that emphasized the line and in which Cyrillic letters as well as archaic image ciphers reminiscent of Neolithic cave drawings or Art Brut featured. His graduation project, which he entitled Perechod, (Perechod, ‘Crossover’) plays with the letters of the Cyrillic alphabet, combines them with script images and occasionally transforms letters into picture symbols. Undoubtedly it is this preoccupation with the threshold between script and image which eventually led Thomas Baumhekel to focus on Chinese characters at the beginning of the 1990s. He feels that the Chinese characters are the ideal medium for describing reality. Irrespective of their type, symbols, he argues, are like a vessel which anyone can fill with personal experiences and ideas. A symbol renders the object or the respective context for which it stands much more clearly than any realistic image which in the end can never achieve the complexity of reality. 

Seeking refuge in Chinese texts and characters by no means implies escapism. For Thomas Baumhekel discovers a parallel world in art, in what is drawn or written down, a world that expresses his own inner being. This corresponds precisely with the essence of the East Asian art of writing, which is by no means just calligraphy, i.e., the art of writing beautifully according to fixed rules, but instead the expression of the writer’s personality whereby the form of the writing has highest priority.

Naturally, conventions arose in the field of writing art in the course of the centuries. It was the Zen (in Chinese: Chan) monks who broke away from this – their aim being to achieve enlightenment by doing away with the constraints of conventional thought. Baumhekel is particularly drawn to some of these masters, predominantly Japanese Zen monks of the 18th century, such as Jiun Onkô (1718-1804), not to mention Japanese post-War avant-garde artists such as Inoue Yûichi (1916-1985) 

Liberated from the burden of tradition that generally weighs down on artists working in the same medium in East Asia, Thomas Baumhekel enjoys an unbiased approach, which gives rise to most of the works’ appeal. He avoids the usual, absorbent East Asian paper and writes mostly on large sheets of white drawing paper. On early pieces he often applied the ink so dry that the characters looked fibrous at the end of the strokes, like split wood. In more recent pictures, he has opted for an ink mixture that does not flow together, but lends the lines an inner structure which makes the stroke sequence and writing process understandable even for amateurs, and emphasizes the temporal element. One could also associate these structures with the grain of wood. At times the strokes look like wooden planks nailed together, thereby creating a bridge to those works in which driftwood or other pieces of found wood are used as the background medium. In this way the works of writing gain a new physical essence or else develop entirely in the realm of the sculptural. For all their expressive power, Thomas Baumhekel’s works are in no way elegant, smooth or complaisant. A certain affinity to the exotic goes hand in hand with a special link to primordial down-to-earthness. 

Text: Uta Rahman-Steinert