The world’s wallpaper

An introduction by Hajo Schiff

Whether steel sculptures, fretwork pieces or, most recently, prints, the prevailing theme of Wolf von Waldow’s work is ornament. Many of his works duplicate symbols or forms with symbolic potential into reiterated pattern. The idea that signs, which are emptied of meaning by their repetition as pattern, can be beautiful is unquestionably true. But wasn’t ornament for a long time considered the reprehensible icing on the cake that spoilt the rigour of pure design? But beware, for from today’s perspective even the legendary adversary of ornament, Adolph Loos, was not beyond gilding his designs with a little “icing”.

Whatever their status at any given time, ornaments establish a context in which socially determinant symbols might appear to be coincidental, a space where binding or now historical values are, as a matter of course, simply available, rather than imposing themselves. Hence ornaments also offer a valuable source of information – at least for coming generations or outside cultural anthropologists. In this respect, the title “Völkerkunde” (ethnology – but also ironically alluding to outdated racial doctrines) Wolf von Waldow gave one of his more recent works could also carry a further connotation. By both conserving images and simultaneously making them void, ornament contributes to a visualization of cultural imagery, yet without ever impressing the need to constantly and consciously decipher these images. Agreeably present, but never domineering – even the coolest designer knows what pleases him about the suggestive mood of history exuded by the ornate mouldings in his Edwardian apartment.

And then there is also music as a source of inspiration: Wolf von Waldow likes “ancient music” (even when he plays it himself) and techno (for dancing). Ostensibly antagonistic, these two forms of music share a common elementary structure. Both are marked by a basic pattern played in countless variations or an uninterrupted rhythmic loop superficially embellished with notes. In other words, they are constructed as pattern in time and space.

Wolf von Waldow’s manner of employing ornament panders neither to nostalgia nor to fashion. As an artist his use of forms is judicious, selecting them very calculatedly for his purposes. He knows precisely how in the course of pictorial history signs came to be laden with deeper meaning as emblems, symbols and allegories; this only enhances his pleasure in subjecting his quoted material to re-interpretation. The formerly portentous signs within his chosen arrangements are first stripped bare and disencumbered as ornaments, before being re-charged with new, singular meanings of their own within his compositions.

Even if Wolf von Waldow has now started designing wallpaper, he is hardly concerned with the task of dressing walls. Rather, this offers him the option of wholly filling real and virtual spaces, from desktop wallpapers to actual apartments, with a range of motifs drawn from the theoretically boundless abundance of his recent formal inventions. A metonymic sign that stands for an entire epoch, similar to how silhouettes signify Romanticism, can no longer be squeezed into a single frame, just as quantum physics cannot be merged with the ancient metaphysical elucidation of the world within a single, restricted space – indeed, it transcends all boundaries.

The work “Völkerkunde” serves well to explore in greater detail how Wolf von Waldow assembles beautiful and altogether disparate elements to construct a cosmic pictorial foil for our existence. The underlying structure draws on Arabic latticed star ornaments which once represented the world’s primordial state of divine harmony in pure mathematical and geometrical form. Large circles in the background are formed from world formulas describing the physical laws of the universe, such as Maxwell’s equations, Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, the theory of relativity, Newton’s law of gravity and so on. Ranged in front of these on a second level are elements of a religio-metaphysical interpretation of the world. The foreground shows a web of arteries and veins whose points of intersection are heightened by oval medallions. As described in the discursive model postulated by the philosopher Ramon Llull in 1283, these are assigned to the sixteen entities of God: Bonitas, Magnitudo, Aeternitas, Potestas, Sapientia, Voluntas, Virtus, Veritas, Gloria, Perfectio, Justitia, Largitas, Simplicitas, Nobilitas, Misericordia und Dominatio. These medallions also evoke the cosmic order of heavenly spheres, with the earth at its centre and surrounded by water, air and fire. Mankind itself appears in the form of heads depicted in profile quoted from publications of twentieth-century racial (“ethnic”) theory, whereby their classifications – likewise far from being admissible – have also been deliberately muddled.

Here, macrocosm and microcosm, a universalist outlook and speculative inquiry, which is strangely obsessed with detail are fused into a single ornamental structure. Volumes of discourse surprisingly assume a tangible presence by being condensed into a single visual formulation. Propitiously, this goes hand in hand with the notion of art history as a general science of imagery, which has recently turned its attention to the role that graphs and depictions have played (and still play) in the impact exerted by allegedly exact natural sciences. Ever since the passing of the medieval certainty of salvation, however, the idea of a definitive account of the universe in word and image has been no more than wishful thinking. Whatever aim it might have of transcribing ancient sign systems into the present day, the splendid presumptuousness of Wolf von Waldow’s world formula also has an ironic twist: the relativization that this model of the universe clearly calls for, lies in its character as wallpaper on a roll, as repeat ornament that has no end and is thus, appropriately, infinite.

© Hajo Schiff, 2008