Q: What was the first work of art you ever sold?
A: It was a watercolor by my uncle that I pretended was mine.1
Daniel Knorr’s contrarian reply is reminiscent of Paul de Man prefacing his essay “The Concept of Irony” with the remark that—since irony is not a concept—the title of his essay is ironic (by way of introduction to his literary theory, the theory of the subject and his complicated ontology). But why should Knorr be evasive? His reply conveys truth and falsity, wit and seriousness—leaving things unsaid, to be filled in by projection.
Knorr, born in Bucharest in 1968, is an expert in obfuscation and the “blurring of contours.”2 Representing Romania at the 51st Venice Biennale, he offers up an empty pavilion (European Influenza, 2005). Or is it empty? What if this void were suddenly to acquire weight—but of what? What notions of representation, identity, legacy? Or what fantasies about these? How dense can this void become, and does it have the power to pull down the walls of Venice, tired of ornate decor? How is one to perceive the statues of kings, bishops, and generals on which Knorr has put balaclavas, making them look like terrorists (Stolen History, 2008)? What stereotypes does the artist set in motion by sending into the street robots he has made to look like street beggars (Lui & Morty, 2002)? And what contexts are brought to life by hanging the colorful flags of semisecret student fraternities on the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin (Nationalgalerie, 2008)? Knorr’s works are suspended in a treacherous “halfway space” where things, places, historical facts, and identifications can shift from one apparently stable set of connotations to a completely different one.
Knorr’s works materialize in many forms: in a gallery, in public space, as a text, a newspaper, an advertisement, even as a conversation. Each of these, like de Man’s irony, is carried by the energy of polysemy—the conviction that reality can be represented in a plethora of ways, which are not only contradictory but also inherently unstable. For Knorr, irony is not the goal: it is a tool that introduces unruly detachment—undermining, ridiculing, and demystifying reality, putting it within inverted commas.
For how—other than as ironic—can one interpret the ambiguity of Daniel Knorr’s reply to an apparently simple question?
1 Lori Fredrickson, “9 Questions for ‘Depression Elevations’ Artist Daniel Knorr,” Blouin Artinfo (July 29, 2013).
2 Wayne C. Booth, The Rhetoric of Irony (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974), p. 270.