Michelle Grabner, “Jan Estep [Wittgenstein Project],” MCAD/McKnight Artists 2006-2007, exhibition catalogue (Minneapolis: MCAD/McKnight Foundation, 2007).
wondered literary critic Terry Eagleton. “What shape and colour are ideas?” Eagleton, working as a screenwriter with director Derek Jarman on a film about twentieth-century philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, found the task of spanning “the abyss between thought and image” insurmountable. Now Jan Estep, who holds a PhD in philosophy as well as an MFA, has taken on the challenge of representing artistically at least some element of Wittgenstein’s life and thought.
Any poetical project concerning Wittgenstein — film, art, or otherwise — involves Wittgensteinian problems. To begin with, Wittgenstein’s life was artful in that the contrasts that defined his character were dramatic; rich and poor, mystic and monk; preferring manual labor, detective novels and Western films to Aristotle and Cambridge. Born into an affluent Viennese family that included Johannes Brahms and Gustav Mahler as house guests, his family was eventually to be forced to hand over millions to the Nazis to release relatives from their control. The writer of Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, considered one of the seminal philosophical works of the twentieth century, Wittgenstein was dismissive of philosophy at times, often urging his disciples to give it up.
This philosophical distress led him to run away to remote locations throughout his life, including Ireland, Russia and Norway. And it is the modest cottage in the woods along a Norwegian fjord where Wittgenstein lived in 1913 that is the focus of Jan Estep’s current research.
Estep, an artist, Wittgensteinian scholar and avid hiker, actively cultivates Wittgensteinian skepticism both in her studio and in her life. Dwelling on his paradoxes, poetics and truths, Estep shapes her own mythology through the careful re-articulation of his words as well as by literally following Wittgenstein’s steps to this forest asylum northeast of Norway’s formal capital city of Bergen. She followed a crudely drawn-out map that is commonly reproduced in texts on the philosopher. She was also guided by another map sketched out for her by a resident of a nearby town. Estep’s three-hour excursion found her hiking though farm fields, up mountain slopes, along wooded trails and shorelines. A few stray markers left behind by other Wittgenstein enthusiasts assisted Estep in locating the deteriorating stone foundation that once supported Wittgenstein’s unassuming cottage.
Pilgrimages of these sorts are typically motivated by a romantic impulse. It is an activity that brings one into geographical proximity and thus into an intimate physical closeness with the figure with whom one desires to bond. Popular examples would include the near obligatory pilgrimage to Jim Morrison’s grave in Pere Lachaise cemetery in eastern Paris by a generation of young people who believe that the Doors’ singer was a great, dark poet. For Jeffersonian scholars, Poplar Forest, Thomas Jefferson’s private retreat on a slave plantation in Virginia, is another example of a necessary albeit problematic research destination.
Estep was enacting a dual reality when she went in search of Wittgenstein’s retreat: As a hiker she was doing simply that, but Estep was also alert to the fact that Wittgenstein, the thinker to whom she has dedicated much of her artistic and scholarly life, was also governing her emotional, spiritual and intellectual experience in the wilds of Norway. When asked about the journey’s impact, her response is neutral. “I was both disappointed in the trip and not disappointed in it.” This, of course, is the perfect Wittgensteinian reply. Estep’s deep-seated need to get close to the repressed, obsessive moralist was motivated by both her faith in philosophy and her lack of such faith.
Photographic and video documentation from her sojourn compose much of the artwork she developed based on her Norway expedition. Generously, she has also developed a geographically accurate map that includes biographical information about the philosopher. In addition, the map elaborates on some of Wittgenstein’s writings and philosophical contributions to twentieth-century thought. Available to all who care to possess one, the map is primarily a thorny metaphor. As Wittgenstein distanced thought from life, words from reality, Estep’s very pragmatic attempt to give mapped coordinates to “knowing” is precisely the problem of which Wittgenstein accused philosophy. It is a complex web of knowing and unknowing, mapping and locating that Estep yearns to delineate for the viewer. The actual location of Wittgenstein’s cottage as marked on the map is a factual bonus to the beautiful yet ungraspable potential at work in Estep’s practice.
Estep’s re-articulation and re-stepping is not simply an appropriation strategy, a philosophical research project, or a cathartic personal exercise. It is a poetical and conceptual art practice that evokes weighty philosophical questions. Estep’s lean photographs and video documentation of her trek to Wittgenstein’s cottage accompanied by her graphically taut map is a work of art that profoundly empathizes with our need for the empirical truth. It is epic in idea, unspectacular in reality. Estep’s perfectly neutral yet officious aesthetic combined with her generous presentation of fact and location is only a chimera to the answers we so yearningly desire.
In summarizing his film Wittgenstein, Eagleton writes, “Does it manage to photograph ideas? I doubt it. Nobody will emerge with a grasp of the finer points of Tractatus.” Estep, too, can unapologetically make this statement. For it is not a scholastic rendering of Wittgenstein’s ideas that Estep is after, but an investigation into the virtues and trials that constitute a full life in the shadow of knowledge. It is the material of artists and poets, not philosophers. And that is why she elects Wittgenstein as subject instead of, say, Bertrand Russell.