The Feeling Eye – Sebastian Heiner’s Roof Performances in Shanghai

Here is truly no idyll; the Oriental and the World Financial Tower, the old and the new landmarks of Shanghai, show themselves dim and dismal in the haze. The eye loses itself in the confusion of buildings and highways. The horizon is not visible. If anything can give the viewer support, then it is the wide bridge spanning the Huangpu river. In the other direction, the continually circling cranes of the dockyard rise out of the see of houses. Seagulls and pigeons take turns flying across the sky.

We are standing on the roof of Sebastian Heiner’s “Studio Shanghai”, a multi-storeyed warehouse in the Yangpu district of Shanghai. Besoms lie scattered on the oil encrusted floor. Boxes full of paint tubes stand next to a wooden scaffolding, on which a linen canvas has been hung and, due to the strong wind, fastened in place with a rope.

The roof is Sebastian Heiner’s island. Ship’s sirens sound from below, reminding one that Shanghai is a harbour city. From up here, the traffic is far away, the continuous droning hardly noticeable.

In his blog, Sebastian Heiner describes how the metropolis appears to him as a monster swallowing anything and everything. In Shanghai he found the driving conflict, this stress field between concentration and chaos, between his work and the energetic, sometimes indiscriminate activity in an emerging China.

He selects colours from the boxes, places the tubes on the tarmacked roof, and forces the paint out with his feet. He scoops up the thick paint with his hands. The orange slaps on with a dull sound. Again and again Sebastian Heiner flings the paint with all his strength onto the canvas.

These Roof Performances made an impression of aggression, even violence, on Peter Wollring, the documentary filmmaker, who filmed Sebastian Heiner at work. The pictures from Wollring’s camera show a tense, highly concentrated painter, who goes to work in an extremely energetic way.

Sebastian Heiner’s gripping painting style can certainly appear aggressive. This impression arises from his enormous physical engagement. A paintbrush isn’t simply lightly brandished, the whole body is in movement here. Using hands, arms, besoms and other utensils, the painter leaves deep tracks in the thick oil paint on the canvas. In so doing, he does not apply the paints as aspects of forms. In the pictorial arts we recognise behind the colours something demonstrative. The essayist Georg Simmel therefore described a portrait as “a demonstrative picture of the demonstrativeness of man”.

In Sebastian Heiner’s paintings the demonstrativeness of things isn’t portrayed by the colours on the canvas. They don’t serve to depict something, but are substan-ces themselves. Blue isn’t just blue, but also a mass, which can be applied and formed differently to green. Here the paint works as building material in its raw texture, and therefore more variegated for our perception. With a broom Sebastian Heiner traces a concise irregular track through the paint, such as a paintbrush never could. Through its movements the body of the artist writes itself into the canvas. With his arm he spreads three tubes of paint onto the canvas in one go. When he works just a hand’s width from the canvas, his body covered in paint, he seems to merge with the painting. He virtually sinks into the canvas.

The painting that originates in such a fashion is saturated with traces of his body movements and reaches an “inner palpability” which transcends mere visibility. “Inner palpability” is an expression Georg Simmel used in 1916 in his essay on Rembrandt. This is meant to convey the complex, compressed aspects of a work in “Oil on Canvas”. It appears to us as untouchable and therefore enhances our vision, makes it sensitive to qualities which we would otherwise not expect to see. Through these works we are encouraged to see not only the colours, but also the texture. Through this, the painting gains complexity.

This complexity is a challenge for our vision. In fact, exclusively for our vision. Sebastian Heiner’s painting is by no means “intellectual”, it is neither a challenge for the intellect, nor can one do justice to these paintings by attempting to understand them symbolically on the basis of cross references. More in vision itself lies the possibility of perceiving these paintings. The key to this visible perception, to this “inner palpability” lies not in the inner eye, but in the physical.

That which we can experience with our eyes in the works of Sebastian Heiner, and which leads to a fantastic, undivided presence, is the concrete corporal engagement which brought them about. We experience the painting substantially through exact contemplation and can thereby comprehend it. This experience can only be hinted at with phrases such as “feel with the eyes”. Admittedly this is an “inner” palpability, and the painting has more optical cavity than a definite and single concept. We can see no symbol that takes its share of the picture’s presence and would direct us to something interesting outside the picture frame. Instead, we are shown that which we would see, if our eyes would see exacter.

Andreas Seifert
Shanghai, 2011/02/08
(Translation: Jessica Hodgkiss)