July 29, 2012

The Right To Be Lazy. John Knight and Siegfried Kracauer

John Knight, The Right To Be Lazy, Berlin, since 2009.

The first thing I do upon arriving in Hamburger Bahnhof, Museum of Contemporary Art in Berlin, is to check out my favorite piece of art (for more current news on this piece, click here and even more current click here). It is in the courtyard and it changes all the time. It goes unnoticed by most visitors because, at first sight, it is very common. The installation of the piece took place in 2009. I was present when the Californian artist John Knight had a simple request for the gardener: the grass in the rondel had to be left untouched from that moment on. The piece is then also titled The Right To Be Lazy. It is inspired by a 1883 manifesto by Paul Lafargue. Lafargue, who was the son in law of Karl Marx, wrote his manifesto as a protest against the dominating working ethics, including Marx'. Only in laziness, so he argued, ideas can come and culture can exist. Therefore Lafargue pleaded for the 3-hour working day: also the worker has a right for his/her own culture.

In Berlin John Knight's The Right To Be Lazy has found its perfect setting. In the city there are still many of these in-between-places that are not invested in. Yet Hamburger Bahnhof's environment shows that things are changing rapidly. The no-man's-land around it has turned into a happening place with a high-rise building and a new station that features in futuristic crime thrillers such as Tom Tykwers The International. In the 1920s Martin Heidegger taught at the Humboldt University in Berlin about boredom as a philosophical issue. The train station was according to him the place par excellence for getting bored. In the new Hauptbahnhof such boredom is hard to imagine. Waiting rooms are non-existent, benches are rare. Instead there is time to consume. The Berlin cultural critic Siegfried Kracauer wrote about this culture of distraction in the upcoming metropolis of the 1920s. Nobody as boring, Kracauer stated in his 1927 essay Langeweile, than those who are never bored. During the day one goes to work – business - and at night one is kept in the state of busy-ness in the cinema. The kind of boredom that originates out of this culture of distraction was addressed by Andy Warhol in his Do-It-Yourself paintings, also on show in Hamburger Bahnhof. No talent is needed for this “painting by numbers”, own ideas are not necessary. The result is predictable, yet there is a feeling of satisfaction upon finishing it.

what is the name of this yellow flower?

I can reminiscent for hours on John Knight's The Right To Be Lazy, expanding on topics such as the beauty of the German word Langeweile, immigration debates about the economical value of a person, Valeska Gert's proto-performance Pause, Marcel Duchamp's reluctance towards the art market, the pressure to perform. Yet, The Right To Be Lazy can also be admired for its pure aesthetics. Each season brings a new beauty to it. Yesterday I met another admirer standing at The Right To Be Lazy: Mark from Hamburger Bahnhof Walther König bookstore. The Right To Be Lazy is an ideal place to practice the art of observation. I mostly check in vain if the Californian flower seeds that I threw in last spring are showing up. Yet Mark has a better eye. He pointed out an Asian plant and called it a pioneer species: pioneer species are the first to colonize previously disrupted ecosystems. Mark elaborated about biodiversity in the city, the mono-culture of the countryside, singing birds and their new urban melodies.

Pioneer species

By the way: today is a great day for The Right To Be Lazy. Sunday is an institution and, according to Kracauer, one should take the opportunity “to rouse oneself into boredom.” Here is his suggestion (the rainy wetter of today will make this easier):

On a sunny afternoon when everyone is outside, one would do best to hang about in the train station or, better yet, stay at home, draw the curtains, and surrender oneself to one's boredom on the sofa. Shrouded in tristezza, one flirts with ideas that even become quite respectable in the process, and one considers various projects that, for no reason, pretend to be serious. Eventually one becomes content to do nothing than be with oneself, without knowing what one actually should be doing – sympathetically touched by the mere glass grasshopper on the tabletop that cannot jump because it is made of glass and by the silliness of a little cactus plan that thinks nothing of its own whimsicality. Frivolous, like these decorative creations, one harbors only an inner restlessness without a goal, a longing that is pushed inside, and a weariness with that which exists without really being.

If, however, one has the patience, the sort of patience specific to legitimate boredom, then one experiences a kind of bliss that is almost unearthly. A landscape appears in which colorful peacocks strut about and images of people suffused with soul come into view. And look - your own soul is likewise swelling, and in ecstasy you name what you have always lacked: the great passion. Were this passion – which shimmers like a comet – to descend, were it to envelop you, the others, and the world – oh, then boredom would come to an end, and everything that exists would be ...

Yet people remain distant images, and the great passion fizzles out on the horizon. And in the boredom that refuses to abate, one hatches bagatelles that are as boring as this one.


  1. Hi An, this yellow flower is called "Königskerze", but she has very many different names in german language like "Unholdskerze" (!) http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/K%C3%B6nigskerzen The pioner tree is called "Essigbaum" and came 1620 from USA to Europe.

  2. Hallo An,

    wie ich sehe, hast Du unsere gestrige Begegnung schnell ins Netz gestellt - aber auch ich bin fleißig gewesen und habe rasch den Namen der Pionierpflanze wieder herausgefunden, der nicht, laut Wolfgangs Kommentar, Essigbaum lautet, sondern Götterbaum bzw. Himmelsbaum, noch schöner aber Bitter- oder Stinkesche: in der Tat, die Blätter riechen sehr unangenehm.
    Siehe hierzu:http://www.oligoplexe.de/Ailanthus-glandulosa.1254.0.html oder noch besser, aber auf italienisch: http://www.liutprand.it/articoliMondo.asp?id=132

    Mit freundlichem Gruße