The repetitive artist

    by Christoph Schreiner, 18. Februar 2017  

Saarbrücken. In a loose series we have visited artists around the Saarland in their studios: this time Alwin Alles, his ’listening-happenings‘ and his letter 'M's.

An attic apartment overlooking Landwehrplatz. Parquet flooring, space. A single-person household. The rooms, one of them purely for props, tastefully furnished. In the hallway, a double-door wardrobe built by his father, below it several pairs of shoes in rank and file. Could one find a wardrobe like this anywhere in the world? One, in which more than 21 years, day by day, have been accurately stacked and stored. Almost 8,000 small leaves of 'Buettenpapier' (handmade paper). Since 1995, a new 'M' is added – every single day. An 'M'?

These 'M's are the most long-lived project of the monomaniac artist Alwin Alles from Saarbrücken. This Saturday, he is going to paint his 7781st McDonald‘s 'M'. What motivates him, each day now for 21 years, to paint the McDonald‘s sign with the same watercolours, on the same type of paper, but in ever new variations? Because he wanted a universal sign, controversial though it may be.
"The excessive drive for repetition has always been there – even in my childhood", he explains. Even then he could listen to the same record single for hours. This is how in 1999 his second, or rather third, artistic project "big music" started.

But let’s start from scratch: The 'M's were the initial spark of Alles’ conceptual work. After his first, rather epigonic painting phase à la Paul Klee – he pondered on "what an artist basically does not do, must not do". He gave the answer to himself: permanent repetition. This is why he made repetition become his artistic principle. Originality ex negativo. On the one hand he "didn‘t want to parrot and copy", on the other he thought that "everything has already been tried and done in the arts". Yet, the exception proves the rule, as Alwin Alles knows, of course: The artists On Kawara (1933-2014) and Roman Opalka (1931-2011) have both celebrated and at the same time neutralized the passage of time in their respective works of meditative date paintings and continuous counting illustrations. Yet, these two artists have always allowed themselves "holidays" from their numbers. Alles does not. His 'M'-monomania knows no pause. "I would never ever cheat", he says. He would never re-date a painting if he had forgotten to paint it – which in his case is excluded anyway because within him pedantry meets obsession and there is a database which serves to catalogue the number of the picture, as well as the day and place of its creation.

For Alles, painting the 'M' and the Euro sign – since 1 January 1999, when the Euro came into existence, he paints a € sign every day, so today it will be No 6624 – is like "brushing your teeth". Part and parcel of his day. Although the day – even with such freedom he allows himself – is only finished when these two works, which individually have no artistic significance to him, are completed. Once in all these years, due to a hospital emergency, he went into a spin, but the catastrophe was averted when he finished the two daily symbols before the day‘s end whilst in hospital.

Art gives structure to everything in the life of this 57 year old computer programmer, whose bread-and-butter job is as a businessman in financial services, a sphere where he is again guardian of data and figures. Strictly speaking, this structure started in 1999 with the third of his long-time projects, called "big music". This has been Alles’ most intense, ambitious and time-consuming project: listening to a single piece of music nonstop for 33 hours and 33 minutes. Pure madness. Yet, elevating this day to a lifelong memory. A torture. But also a game, which carries on into sleep. A submission. But an experience of permanence, which can be integrated into everyday life. So far, Alles has lived this experience 916 times. At home often via loudspeakers, otherwise via headphones. Just once, when he had to listen to Madonna‘s 3.44 minute song "Music" – that is 600 times in a row – Alles feared he would not make it.

Normally he only chooses songs he really likes. Just last year alone he immersed himself in 108 'listening marathons'. Sometimes jazz, sometimes techno, or classical, often pop. Compositions, which he has internalized in the form of what he calls "listening happenings", in endless loops: 108 x 33.5 hours in the year 2016, the equivalent of more or less four months. It is these self-imposed rules that make the "big music" project so time-consuming, a project in which the repetition fetishist Alles declares that listening to a song in an endless loop is a work of art.

Along with these experiments on himself, Alles also wants to record his ageing process, so he always takes a photo of himself during each of these excesses. But not just any photo. Soon, Alles tried to re-create the respective record covers using his own photograph. This venture may explain the existence of the prop room in his apartment, where he stores the clothes he found on second-hand markets. But then came the idea to take a photo of himself at the original place seen on the record cover. Thus, for Neil Young‘s "After the Gold Rush" he went to New York, and indeed posed at the street corner in Greenwich Village where we can still find the metal fence that Neil Young had passed by. He also flew to South East Asia to take a photo listening to Matthew Herbert‘s 2.44 minute song "Singapore".

In time, another idea occurred to him: he wanted to absorb the songs with place names at their actual location for 33 hours and 33 minutes by ear. The respective projects and their realization are maniacal. One may already guess where all this is leading. For example, well structured holiday planning: since Alles likes to listen to the songs of the German electronic pioneers "Tangerine Dream" – which all are named after existing parks – at their original locations, he had to go to Kyoto and Sydney in March 2017. In this way he is always trying to combine business with pleasure. Travelling according to self-imposed project rules. "Big music" is, so to speak, lived with the freedom of self-imposed constraint. The pain of pleasure. Role-play. And a form of inspiring self-discipline.

However, Alles is not totally obsessed with location and does realize listening happenings in the Saarland. Actually most of them. In each respective setting, where he takes in each song through sight (album cover/photo ) and sound (location) to make it his, "the important thing is the relationships, not the exact pattern". That‘s not to say it prevents Alles from imposing various strict vows. As is the case of the anniversary of jazz musician Esbjörn Svensson‘s death, when Alles listens to a song of his band E.S.T. on a beach near Stockholm every year – exactly at that place where Svensson died on 14 June 2008 whilst diving.

As in his spiritual 'M' project , each individual piece of Alles’ even more complex listening happenings is not artistically compelling. Some of it seems banal, affected, self-aggrandising. Seen as a whole, however, all three long-term contemplations are convincing. "To me it is important that the project is appreciated as art. If it were not, there would be no sense to do it", he says. Adding that if he had the money, he would make sure an algorithm "would go on painting his pictures" after his death. Then, the 'M's and €s would indeed become eternal – just as is already inscribed in Alwin Alles‘ concept work.

    The "M" Alles painted last Tuesday was his 7777 th  
    m.7777 | 14.02.2017  
copyright © 2013 alwin alles