On ‚Irreversible Moment‘ by Heike Catherina Mertens

Heike Catherina Mertens

As we all know, quotations taken out of context can be interpreted in many ways, not always in the spirit of the original author. These two sentences from Franz Kafka’s Zürauer Aphorisms, published in 1931 by Max Brod under the title Reflections on Sin, Pain, Hope and the True Way, however, read like rather gratifying instructions for action in reference to Jenny Brockmann’s exhibition Open Lab ‘Irreversible Moment’. Both start out from the existential assertion of a ‘point of no return’, which should be reached in Kafka’s case – and understood in Brockmann’s. While Kafka was probably envisaging death as his ‘certain point’ (in the same piece he writes: “A first sign of the beginning of understanding is the wish to die.”2), the artist is concerned with comprehending the irreversible quality of something that is not restricted to death, or perhaps does not touch upon death at all (see essay by Jeremy Wade).

What is irreversibility? The term derives from physics, which refers to a physical process as irreversible when it cannot be turned back. Max Planck was the first to point out that this definition should be supplemented by “in any way at all”, as many processes can be made reversible through a corresponding expenditure of energy. “But whether a process is reversible or irreversible depends solely upon the nature of the initial state and the final state but not at all on how the process has been carried out; in an irreversible process the final state is distinguished, in a certain way, from the initial state: nature possesses, so to speak, a greater ‘preference’ for it.”3

As well as in physics, there are also irreversible processes in chemistry, in the shape of reactions that cannot be reversed in isolation. In other fields like medicine, for example, physical damage resulting from incurable illnesses is referred to as irreversible. The concept of irreversibility can also be transferred to human development and the economic system.

Jenny Brockmann begins her research with the creation of a new term: the ‘Irreversible Moment’. It may seem surprising that the ‘Irreversible Moment’ is a neologism coined by the artist, as it develops from existing terms. As a rule, however, physics speaks of an irreversible process, while in the humanities we tend to use the expression ‘point of no return’ for the moment within a process when a return to the starting or first point is no longer possible. It is true that this term also originated in physics, or rather aerial navigation, and describes the moment when an aeroplane is no longer capable, due to the amount of fuel already burnt, of flying back to its original location. But this expression was adopted by historical and social sciences, where it refers to irreversible social processes.

By introducing the new term of the ‘Irreversible Moment’, Jenny Brockmann associates both concepts – the irreversible process and the ‘point of no return’ – with each other and simultaneously formulates the method behind her artistic practice. This is characterized by the fact that she takes into account not only physical, chemical and mathematical definitions of irreversibility but also the socio-political, economic and artistic. Her practice creates a bridge between the sciences and the humanities, linking them in their turn with various artistic disciplines such as dance, music and visual art, in order to approach the essence of the ‘Irreversible Moment’ from multiple perspectives. However, by contrast to most artists, Jenny Brockmann not only makes use of current research findings but also investigates irreversibility in conjunction with scientists. Such face-to-face research cooperation is extremely rare despite the popular art-science discourse.

Besides the interdisciplinary research approaches or findings relating to the ‘Irreversible Moment’ in Jenny Brockmann’s work, in the background there are also echoes of a fundamental enquiry into the nature of change – structural, spatial, political and personal, while the central artistic question of visualizing the ‘Irreversible Moment’ remains in the foreground. Background and foreground, however, do not refer to an evaluating hierarchy here, but determine one another. And so, for example, the artist assumes that in chemistry and physics, as well as in the economy and an individual’s personal development, there are a great many more irreversible processes and moments than previously imagined. Reversibility presupposes man’s free will, but free will is subject to ever increasing pressure. While biology has demonstrated the interplay of genetic disposition and environmental influences as restricting free will, the latest brain research indicates that conscious decisions are preceded temporally by brain activity. According to John Dylan Haynes, this is evidence that our decisions are influenced strongly by subconscious background processes. On the basis of this research, the question is also re-posed as to the possibility of reversible decisions.

In Jenny Brockmann’s case art cannot be understood as a finished work. Temporality and the process play essential parts; the viewer is not only a recipient but always a part of the work as well. The artist even goes a step further for her exhibition Open Lab ‘Irreversible Moment’ in the Ernst Schering Foundation. The entire exhibition space becomes an open laboratory, in which knowledge relating to the ‘Irreversible Moment’ continually grows, and is exchanged. In this space there is permanent research, discussion and negotiation; and visitors can become part of the process.

1. Franz Kafka: Nachgelassene Schriften und Fragmente II in der Fassung der Handschriften, ed. by Jost von Schillemeit, Frankfurt am Main 1992, p. 114 2. Ibid., p. 116 3. Max Planck: Vorträge, Reden, Erinnerungen, ed. by Hans Roos and Armin Hermann, Heidelberg 2001 (1st edition 1945), p. 57.