In Defense of Confession

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Even in its title, artist Peter Wächtler's first solo museum exhibition in the US, Secrets of a Trumpet, suggests secrets of its own. On its surface, the title seems nonsensical; of the orchestral instruments, the trumpet is far from the subtlest, tracing its history back to signaling devices used in war and hunting. The highest member of the brass family, the trumpet is designed to be heard by all. What, then, would it mean for a trumpet to have a secret? Perhaps the secrets of Wächtler's trumpet are secrets in some senses, but not othersfor a secret is not only that which few know, but also that which we don't want to discuss openly. If the secret of this show is like the secret of a trumpet, then maybe its truth is one we all "hear" on some level, even if we try to ignore it.

Both as things few know and things we don't wish to discuss, secrets are associated with the personal and the particular genre involving the disclosure of the personal we call confession. Discussions of Wächtler have grouped him with other "confessional" artists and writers, such as Verena Dengler and Ben Lerner. Drawing approvingly on the work of Michel Foucault, critic Pablo Larios agues these confessional modes lead to the search for ever more authentic selves to disclose, pushing these subjects deeper and deeper into themselves in a mise en abyme ultimately doomed to failure. In his gloss of the situation, Larios writes, "when I share this with you, what's mine is now yours; reciprocally, what's mine is no longer mine. My only way 'out' is to go deeper 'in', to compromise myself still further."[1] Although confession offers the illusion of freedom, for Foucault confession merely opens up new avenues through which power can operate. But what if we understood confession as doing something other than revealing a self? What else might it communicate? Through an interpretation of Secrets of a Trumpet, I want to suggest confession doesn't exactly disclose the self, but rather how the self navigates the world. By inserting a critical distance between confession and confessor, the result is something to which multiple people can relate.


Peter Wächtler, Secrets of a Trumpet Introductory Text, 2016

The show's introductory text relays the admission of an unnamed narrator who derives pleasure from activities like throwing away objects and finishing off products but has a limited ability to deal with topics like love and friendship. In Freudian terms, anxieties about things we have little control over are displaced onto that over which we have more control; we may not be able to make others care about us, but we can always purchase, consume, and throw away commodities. We do not assume the "self" of Secrets of a Trumpet is necessarily the artist's. Instead, we see a less specific "self" with whom we might identify, who may call attention to the ways we might similarly transfer our existential anxieties onto more manageable, yet remote, objects. In this way, Secrets of a Trumpet can be understood as having a therapeutic function, whereby we witness not a Wächtler seeking his most "authentic" self pace Larios, but rather a Wächtler critically chronicling various examples of displacement.


Peter Wächtler, Teddy Boy 3 (left) and Teddy Boy 4 (right), 2016

This externalized self reappears throughout the show, most notably in a series of four chests documenting the life of a "Teddy Boy," a British cousin of rockabilly. Unlike the nondescript decorations adorning most household items, these scenes grab our attention. They are also strange episodes to immortalize through art. The experiences of our Teddy Boy range from the quotidian (going to the doctor, shaving, drinking) to the shameful (bar fight, stealing, running away) to the solemn (funeral) to the intimate (kissing, post-coital cuddling), all of which are rendered somewhat humorous by the presence of his distinctive pompadour. Like the narrator of the opening text piece, our Teddy Boy appears to be someone to whom life happens, rather than someone who makes life happen. We see our anti-hero holding onto glimmers of agency, exercising agency in ugly ways, or not having agency altogether. Together, these boxes seem to challenge the idea of a true confession. Confession implies agency, insofar as not being in control of our actions would mean we would have nothing to confess.


Peter Wächtler, Laundry 3, 2016

The remaining works move into more abstract territory. Instead of depictions of an "actual" self, we get traces of one, for example in the form of clothing. Four watercolor landscapes occupy the wall opposite the entrance, all depicting various kinds of laundry drying on the line as a storm rages in the background. It is important to note the scale of these paintings, with their larger-than-life clothes. Of course, clothing is among the first things one notices about another. In the West, at least, we often think of clothing as a way of expressing individuality, in this way making these materials subservient to us. Yet, in these works, the cloth of clothing seems to rise up in rebellion. Not only would we drown in their oversized folds, the textiles themselves seem animate, refusing to quietly hang where they're placed, some even escaping the line altogether. It may be that some of the materials we rely upon to communicate our selves aren't as stable as we would like to assume. As artistic materials, clothing tends to signify a lack of self, inviting viewers to imagine the owner and inhabitants of such belongings. But the motion these paintings imply distract us from such speculations; our eyes are instead drawn along the twisting contours of fabric blowing in the wind.


Peter Wächtler, I, 2016

Counterbalancing the back wall with their weight and color are four sculptures of mass housing structures. If clothing shields bodies from the elements, buildings shield bodies from the world. Unlike the clothes paintings, viewers tower over these edifices. Too large to reference dollhouses, their dark bronze likewise discourages play. Ominous and foreboding, we spend a good portion of our lives within such buildings. Unlike the ephemeral, implied individuality of clothing, these sculptures suggest interchangeability; they are built to outlast the comings and goings of their residents. Many of us will fashion our havens from the vicissitudes of the world in such austere complexes. We will choose sofas and dining room sets; we will coordinate the carpets with the curtains and wonder whether it's worth it to retile the bathroom. Like outfits, homes are outlets for our individuality. And like clothing, it is often far easier for us to redesign our apartments than it is for us to change our lives. The domestic is another venue ripe for the displacements that come from navigating a world that engenders desires difficult, if not impossible, to satisfy.


Peter Wächtler, Cat, 2016

The rest of the show turns away from the human to pursue some of the same themes within the animal. Across from the exhibition's introductory wall text is an easily overlooked bronze relief. Almost cartoonlike, a cat yowls on a fence while a discarded boot and empty can float in the distance. Although not human, animals pose some of the same problems as people, such as our inability to know what is going on inside other minds. Is Wächtler's cat yowling in pain? Loneliness? We can observe it, but we cannot feel its feelings. Keeping the cat company from outside the gallery, a bronze otter wears a baseball uniform and cap, proudly surveying an expense of patchy snow and dead grass. Standing on its rear legs, its paws gently rest upon the end of an upturned bat. The otter appears to be celebrating some sort of accomplishment, even though its surroundings are far from glorious. As an object, the sculpture might be read metaphorically. The feeling of being out of place, whether for the narrator of the wall text or the pompadoured Teddy Boy, is a telltale of displacement; attempting to fulfill our desires with that which we know won't satisfy leads to the sort of disconnect that makes us look awkward and sometimes comical.


Peter Wächtler, Untitled (Otter), 2015

Fearing the "anxiety of production," Larios accuses Wächtler and his cohort of fellow "confessors" of making the very failure to confront this anxiety their art: "I pronounce my own failure, that is, myself (my art); insofar as this pronouncement succeeds (as art), I both contradict this failure and retain the truth-value of my initial announcement (as failure)."[2] In a sense, Larios is correct; Wächtler is indeed an artist of failures. The unnamed narrator fails to connect to either himself or the viewer, the Teddy Boy fails to nobly adorn his boxes, the clothes fail to transmit a distinct self, the buildings fail to house, the cat fails to express itself legibly, and the otter fails to fit its snowy environment, both in terms of its natural habitat and in terms of its inappropriately summery attire. But, contra Larios, Wächtler does not stop there, at least not in this show. These failures are not those of Wächtler's personal self, but rather the failures of a set of abstract "selves" whose identities remain unclear. It is precisely this lack of distinct identification that makes Secrets of a Trumpet interesting. Because these failures are not claimed as Wächtler's, they might be ours.


Brandon Sward is a writer who lives and works in Chicago and Los Angeles

[1] Pablo Larios. "Me, Myself & I: Self-presentation in recent art and writing." Frieze d/e, May 29, 2015.

[2] Ibid.