Electric rebel and terracotta soldier

Holger Grebe

One Saturday in early December 2013, 50 pupils and activists marched into the Stuttgart Christmas market in the shadow of the Württemberg Art Society as a “testudo solaris” with self-made solar panels. The “testudo”, Latin for tortoise, was a successful military formation of the Roman army in antiquity. The interlocking metal shields of the soldiers protected them from the front, sides and top. On this grey morning Pablo used the battle formation to produce “electric art”. Megaphone in hand, the action artist directed his troop through the crowds of visitors at the Christmas market, earning himself sometimes irritated, sometimes surprised comments. The electricity produced during the action was stored in small rechargeable batteries and collected through several car batteries which staff from the company “Performance Electric” pulled along behind the young people on a handcart.

In the preceding weeks, dozens of pupils had made the light panels with the photovoltaic foil ironed on to them at several workshops at Stuttgart secondary schools under Pablo’s guidance. Now these solar experts were standing as action artists in the flashlights of the photographers who accompanied the performance. A spectacular encounter between science, art and myth.

Art out of the power socket

Two years ago, Pablo founded the not-for-profit Performance Electrics GmbH as a power supplier. In contrast to conventional energy suppliers, the electricity here is not produced in a standardised industrial way. On the contrary, the electricity is generated through artistic processes and installations – for example through eight-metre high wind turbines made from the posts of recycled street lights and traffic signs. Since Pablo feeds his electricity into the public network through the so-called Power Station, it can be bought from there. Users of his artistic electricity include public museums and collections. But in private houses, too, art now comes out of the power socket. An irritant which not only works but also stimulates the thinking. As long ago as 2008, artistic electricity was already flowing when the power rebel fixed solar modules to various illuminated advertising hoardings in Stuttgart’s city centre. Fed by the bright advertising lights, these “spongers” recycled the light! As a bonus this action turned quite a few shop owners into “communicators of art” as Pablo notes with a smile in the interview.

Pablo Wendel, born in 1980, had a sheltered upbringing far from the metropolis in Tieringen in the Swabian Jura. At the end of his school days at the Balingen Waldorf School, a two-metre high stone stele showed his artistic potential. During his apprenticeship as a stonemason, months spent working on the rebuilt Dresden Frauenkirche was one of his most lasting experiences. As part of his art course at the Stuttgart State Academy of Art and Design from 2002 to 2009, with sculpture as his main subject, he had the opportunity to study at the Art Academy in Hangzhou in China for one semester.

A rebirth

During this time he caused great disconcertment by jumping into one of the open sewers in this metropolis. “First Mud” he subsequently called his action which was documented by a French photographer. The unusual manoeuvre concealed a deep longing: “My wish to identify myself with the country and come ‘back to the earth’,” as Pablo said. At the time he saw the whole city with its extreme divide between rich and poor as his studio. For weeks he pedalled through the “urban prairie” with a bicycle he had bought and undertook perception exercises with his whole body. In doing so he became aware for the first time of the effects of a globalised world. He experienced as painful the extreme tendency for isolation of the individual as a homeless person or admired foreigner, the constant judgement by rank and status.

With hindsight he judges his leap into the sewer like this: “The experience of being covered from head to toe with faeces, mud and waste had a great impact on me. When I tried to get back to the academy I was prohibited from using public transport. So it took me four or five hours to get home during which there were some fascinating encounters and reactions.”

The artist becomes a living sculpture

A few weeks later, he pursued the experience of becoming a sculpture oneself further. In months of work he copied one of the infantry soldiers of the world-famous Terracotta Army in Xi’an with a costume he made himself. In a moment when there was no one watching, he placed himself on a clay plinth he had brought along in the last row of the life-sized warriors whose formations are over 2,000 years old. About fifteen minutes later the Chinese police discovered and arrested him, without him however giving up his warrior pose. Asked about his courage, the 33-year-old plays it down: “I die a thousand deaths before each project.”

The action of the cheeky Swabian student made it as far as the evening TV news in Germany. But something that looks simple and a bit of a joke required months of preparatory work with a sometimes eight-strong team. Everything had to be done in extreme secrecy if the artist was not to put those working with him at risk. After all, his work could have been judged to be a serious crime by the authorities. After extensive questioning he was let off with a warning. His stay in China as part of the grant from the German state of Baden-Württemberg was at an end. The surprising thing was that Wendel very quickly became a media star in China.

The authorities managed to convert the interest of a European artist “in the origin of their empire, which exists to the present day, into a positive event,” as the curator of the Museum of Fine Arts Bern, Daniel Spanke, wrote, when he placed a video of Wendel’s art work “Terracotta Warrior” among the old masters of the collection. Pablo’s thinking has integrated many influences and experiences – including Joseph Beuys’ idea of the extended concept of art from the 1970s. Artistic activity does not take place in an ivory tower but in the midst of the force fields of our urban present day. The artist exposes himself to its neuroses, refinements and chasms with every new endeavour. His main question, says curator Susanne Jakob, is: “What if …”

His installations and actions have their origin in the substrate of a fearless curiosity which wants to understand and scrutinise reality. In their subversive character they are designed to bring about change and are thus also always political. Despite his young age, Pablo has worked for years as a lecturer – in Berlin, Stuttgart and São Paulo. Teaching, says Heraclitus, is lighting a fire, not filling an empty bucket.

With his exciting ideas, Pablo Wendel is definitely a Greek. Wendel’s thinking has retained the affinity with wonder.

Link: www.performance-electrics.com