Fettstuhl Universe

Fettstuhl Universe

The art, writing and music most meaningful to ourselves sometimes is the result of years of experience and study, of long planning and preparation, and sometimes it jumps into our face or painfully bites us into the arse in a fleeting moment in space and time. I know both - the sweating over concepts in writing, working for years on a single piece, and the nuclear power of a photographic moment, when time seems to all but disappear and a feeling of near enlightenment befalls me. As a writer, I usually choose my topics, my style. I prepare, I work systematically. As a photographer and digital artist I allow the motives and moments to choose me.

I took this photo without much thinking. Just so. Being a trained astrophysicist, system scientist and physical geographer it may seem plausible that we are looking at something exotic happening somewhere in deep space. Galaxies millions of light years away emitting huge swaths of gas, perhaps? Inexplicable events at the edge of the universe, directly after the moment of the big bang? Or do we see exotic micro organism, colorised mutated fungi or bacteria under the microscope?

None of the above. What we see has become, for me, the quintessential symbol for our historical era. Only after, for myself, naming the picture „Fettstuhl Universe“ did I realize that Joseph Beuys, the ingenious „Homme Fatal“ of the German art scene between the post war area and the 80s of the last century, did create an artwork with a similar title: „Stuhl mit Fett“, in English known as „Fat chair“. All however that Beuys’ title and mine have in common is their literal meaning: While in his case the title referred to a chair with a huge wedge of grease, mine refers to the other meaning of „Stuhl“ in German: Stool, which in English has the same double meaning. A proper translation hence would be „Fat-Stool Universe“.

While Beuys’ geniality is immortal and hence was and is accepted as-is, without requiring much in terms of explanations, I am a mere mortal scientist and cannot other but explain. Here is my spontaneous insight of that moment: Shit is everything! Now I do not claim to be a Zen master. En contraire. The insight I refer to directly leads to holistic thinking in a very concrete, scientific and material way: the term „environment“, as it is commonly used, is an illusion!

There simply is no such thing as an „environment“ or in German „Umwelt“, literally the „surrounding world“. There is no „environmental degradation“ or „environmental destruction“. The illusion is one of an arbitrary separation that, in reality, does not exist. It is artificial. The idea that I am here, everything else is separated from me, outside of me, opposite of me, surrounding me, is delusional. How long can we hold our breath, before we have to inhale fresh air and to exhale the carbon dioxide and water vapour released by our metabolic processes? The very processes that provide us with energy and building blocks for our body and mind were passed on to us by and through other beings, by the allegedly surrounding world.
The universe constantly flows through us. We are parts of the atmosphere. We are parts of the water cycle and countless other cycles and intricate webs. We are fundamentally made up of subatomic particles that have been around since radiation and matter were de-coupled just after the universe began. The carbon atoms all life as we know it is based upon were bred in dying stars. Elements beyond iron only formed in Supernovae, huge star explosions. Their shockwaves led to the formation of stars with high metallicity - among them long living stars with rocky, watery planets like our Earth, where life could evolve and thrive and often just barely survive over billions of years. Even the very formation the sun and of of Earth itself hence is the result of a long process of stellar evolution that took billions of years.

I recall a travel report of an American visitor to Germany, who was disgusted by the toilets. Many toilets, especially the older ones, have a design where the user’s remains do not fall directly into a small pool of water, but into a dry bowl from where it is washed off when flushing. This design uses less water. The foreign visitor was so irritated that he contemplated not to visit the country anymore. He spoke of having been forced to „coming to terms with his shit“. And here is the crux: modern man largely lives in denial of even his own fundamental biological nature. 

Coming to terms with our own shit is exactly what we, as a species have to do. We have to understand that our „shit“, as society, as an out of control mass consumer species in a world of superficial pleasures and useless things, is beginning to dominate the world - to drown the world, quite literally. The old style German WCs allow the user to inspect the remains - for example for blood spots. For other signs of disease. As in a functioning dynamic system, there is information back-propagating from output to input. Realisation. Staying grounded. 

In the case of this picture we are looking at a form of diarrea. Clearly, when we have diarrea, there is something wrong. I suffered from an endocrine disease that made me gain weight rapidly, also because I was constantly hungry and deeply unhappy at the time. One desperate attempt to control my weight in those days was to take a medication that would inhibit the digestion of fat. The result was an appalling, liquid, fatty stool oozing from my behinds. For heaven’s sake, I thought. What are you DOING to yourself? What are WE, mankind, doing to ourselves and the world - and WHY?

Garbage, oil slicks, eutrophication of the water bodies, rising CO₂ concentrations, poisoning of freshwater and the tenths of thousands of artificial chemical substances circling and magnifying up in the bio-geospheric matter cycles and trophic levels of our planet: They are our collective fat-stool. A result of a systemic disease that blindly forced us into a state of never ending binge eating and excreting and vomiting. Either we find a cure, or we will continue, until we consume ourselves, like the classic Erisychthon of Thessaly who was cursed to insatiable hunger by Demeter, after he had destroyed her holy oak. Erisychthon, finally, consumed himself and died in terrible agony. The Earth, as Nietzsche said, has a pest called man, a species that re-programmed itself with a programme of planetary suicide by creating a machine that is fed with everything that exists while creating purely virtual numerical values on the output side: money.

Note: On the technical side the image is a result of applying a single relatively simple filter to the original digital photograph.

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Comments 2

Stefan Thiesen
2 years ago
Stefan Thiesen Artist, Photographer, Journalist
Thank you Paul - I really appreciate this comment, especially coming from a gifted artist as you. I struggled with myself first, normally dwelling more on the side of documentary - even technical and scientific - photography. I'm actually going through a development these days, partly triggered by my research on global environmental change and global existential risk. Desperation sneaks into my soul - and the slow realisation that the answers lie not within logics, but with our beliefs and emotions. Partly this piece is also an expression of my frustration and anger, and as Franz Kafka said about writing: “A book has to be the axe for the frozen sea inside of us”.
Thanks again - and rest assured that I am deeply impressed by every single one of your works. I myself mostly paint with words.
Paul Brotherton
2 years ago
Paul Brotherton Artist, Designer
Compliments on this piece.....interesting and thought-provoking text....and a powerful image!

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