What is the difference between sweat and tears? At first glance, the body fluids are similar. In both cases it is salty water that, in certain situations, leaks from the inside of the body to the outside through holes in the skin, which (as I remember from biology class) is a semi-permeable membrane. The situations in which saltwater leaves our pores or eyes are varied – but miraculously, the exit of these similar and yet so different liquids is often emotionally motivated. There is sweat of fear, sweat of pleasure, sauna sweat and athletic sweat, just as there are tears of sadness, pain, or sentimentality. And, not too rarely, it is a complex mixture of all these emotions, stored in the fluid that is released to cool down the body.
In his exhibition “Sweaty Self”, Dennis Buck deals with memories that are as touching as they are painful – because that is what makes life lived, that these poles are often closely interwoven, sometimes indistinguishable. Just as it is the memories themselves that remain blurred and only gain clarity when narrated with a counterpart – only to become obscure again in repetition. With each re-telling, another layer is added to the memory until it is unclear what is the “original” and what is the adaptation. A kind of ongoing “Silent Post” (or „Chinese Whispers“) game with yourself.
In the case of “Sweaty Self”, the counterpart is the viewer. And this is confronted with the incompleteness of a biographical narrative – moments of a life appear before us on the canvas in a way that they cannot in language, in all of their rawness.
Because, “raw”, are often the stories that life writes when you experience it in all its immediacy. The fears, anxieties and seeming hopelessness are real in the moment itself – they only become a tragicomic anecdote when they are told at a distance in time, until the story has dramaturgically filed itself away. So, it is not the experience itself that makes you laugh, but the narration of it, the processing – and the amused reaction, the laughter, of the third party, the listener. And yet these stories remain particularly touching precisely because of their abysmal quality that appears within the mundane. The anecdotes need the genuine pain that is hidden within them in order to move their recipients, i.e. their listeners and viewers. Because it is precisely the tragedy that seems to interest all of us, in an almost voyeuristic manner.
Perhaps this is the reason why we can hardly look away from Dennis Buck’s works, which appear to us as both weeping and sweating canvases – all seemingly contradictory emotions are equally preserved in them and are brought back to life when we look at them. The canvases are animated, declared to be something soulful.
“I wrote my first poem in the rain” is the title of one of them, which is not shown in “Sweaty Self”, but which represents a key moment. The works, as well as the sentences on them, create a strong imagination that is so individually specific, so intimately charged, that we briefly lose ourselves in it. The internal image is stronger than a picture could be because it is filled with our own stories, our blurred memories. The Sisyphean labor, the dedication to the futile, is stored in the fading writing. And yet, as Camus writes, Sisyphus is “the happiest person in the world” – because he always has a project. Accepting the infinite incompleteness eases of their actions the individual.
There’s a species of moth that feeds on the tears that birds cry in their sleep. In “Sweaty Self”, we ourselves become this species, nourishing ourselves with the tragicomic moments of the biography of another, the artist Dennis Buck, and wallowing a little in the mishaps that could have happened to all of us. Even more: identification becomes essential, we feast on the sad stories, on the courageously shared shame of another.
But what would it be like if tears smelled – and sweat didn’t? And what about Dennis Buck so-called “underwater sweat”?
Text: Olga Hohmann