‘Apropos the Kissing of a Hand’ forefronts the Festival Robert Walser. The exhibition at Vane consists of the work of eleven national and international artists who share a fascination with one of the major figures of modernist literature: Holly Antrum,
 Becky Beasley, 
Billy Childish, 
Robert Ellis,
 Catrin Huber,
 Sophie Macpherson,
 Jeremy Millar,
 Arnaud Moinet,
 Francesco Pedraglio, 
Roman Signer, and 
Sylvia Vögel. Organised and curated by artist and writer Paul Becker and painter Catrin Huber.

The twentieth century Swiss writer Robert Walser (1878-1956) has had a huge influence on a long list of literary, artistic and philosophical figures, from Franz Kafka to Walter Benjamin, musicians such as Heinz Holliger, visual artists from Paul Klee to Mark Wallinger and Tacita Dean, and filmmakers including the Brothers Quay. Only translated into English comparatively recently, international interest in Walser’s work has generated a wealth of new art, writing and critical discussion, which continues to explore his unique legacy.

Walser worked as a bank clerk, a butler in a castle and an inventor’s assistant, at the same time producing several novels and more than a thousand stories and poems. In 1929 he checked himself into an asylum in Berne, Switzerland, where he was diagnosed with schizophrenia. He remained in mental health institutions for nearly thirty years until his sudden death in 1956, whilst walking in a field of snow near the asylum.

‘Apropos the Kissing of a Hand’ attempts to highlight Walser’s impact on a wide range of contemporary artists and, more particularly, seeks to present artists who attempt the complexities of referencing the influence and language of literature within their works.

Through printmaking and time-based media, Holly Antrum gathers a reservoir of images on which to build; digital and analogue images, film and sound are brought together in a fragmentary and elusive dialogue between material and the passage of time – a form of vanitas on the transience of life or a dream-play. As in Walser’s economic ‘pencil method’ – where poems and prose, written in a diminutive Kurrent or German ‘blackletter’ script, compressed worlds of meaning ‘nestled between lines’ of miniscule characters – Antrum embeds the meaning of her work into the activity of making: a hovering fascination with transience, rhythm, gaze and texture.

Becky Beasley’s simple objects and photographs alternate between direct or abstract references to literary sources and their roots in the everyday. Their relation to the work of Walser lies in their strict attention to the minutest details and how that constantly rubs against the madness of their own making: the tension that lies in the fragility of their perfection.

Singer, guitarist, poet and artist, Billy Childish has created many paintings and prints in response to the iconic police photographs showing Walser lying dead in the snow. Highly expressionistic, Childish’s paintings of the author’s body convey a sense of the visionary significance that he discovered in Walser’s writing. They are imbued with an almost metaphysical vitality, the same spark of life that Walser saw uniting all objects, places and people.

Since leaving art education, Robert Ellis has been a nine-to-five civil servant during the week and his artistic life has been expressed through intensely thoughtful drawings, watercolours, small sculptures, text and performances. As with several of the other artists in the exhibition, the work of Ellis is modest in its scale, use of materials, and reductive simplicity, so much so that it lives on the extreme edge of disappearing altogether.

Catrin Huber is interested in different ways of representing architectural and imagined spaces as painting and drawing. Her wall paintings relate directly to their environment while aiming for a balance between actual and fictional architecture, built structures and imagined rooms. In the ‘Syntax of Clouds’ series, something familiar yet nebulous is given more solid form establishing an ornamental grammar of dreamed-up spaces. This elevation of the ephemeral, the transmogrification of the humdrum into the magical, echoes the spirit of Walser and his playful, ornamental use of language.

Though Sophie Macpherson’s work starts from a sculptural idea, there is always a crucial physical balance to be struck in the apparent relationship between herself and the objects she constructs, which, as in Walser’s writing, moves towards choreography, a conversation between artist and artwork. Whether filmed, sung, danced or drawn, the work exists in a space between the everyday and the theatrical. Clothes, hair, gesture, all bring depth, thoughtfulness and gravitas to what is essentially ephemeral and fleeting.

Jeremy Millar’s work has long drawn upon a broad range of literature, from Rousseau to Dickinson and WG Sebald. In March 2005, Millar took a day-long walk in some of the Alpine landscape through which Robert Walser himself walked, stopping in places that the writer frequented. The work he is exhibiting here, Black Sun over Herisau (for Robert Walser) (2012) makes reference to this extraordinary landscape, and the extraordinary writer who lived and died there.

Arnaud Moinet’s work utilises a wide range of media: photography, installation, sculpture, video and sound. What often appear to resemble idiot savant interventions and stumbling, Buster Keaton style comedic performances are actually sophisticated investigations and re-evaluations of significant forms and moments in art history. The tensions and sense of apprehension Moinet creates draw the viewer onto the same level of inquiry as the performer, levelling the tacitly understood hierarchy of artist and audience.

Francesco Pedraglio is a writer, performer, editor and curator whose work, in all its forms, inhabits the difficult, ever-changing terrain between contemporary art and literature. Eliptical, discursive texts and performances create meandering narratives, full of assertions and contradictions that constantly refuse to ‘make sense’. Pedraglio’s work plays with language as constantly recurring endgame as well as reflecting on the mechanics of storytelling itself.

In a similar way to Walser’s prose, where inanimate objects are suddenly imbued with metaphorical desire and emotion, Roman Signer constructs unique filmed examples of slapstick events – what he terms aktions – or experiments that co-opt everyday objects, causing usually static objects to react in startling, often explosive ways. Suitcases, umbrellas, flowerpots and office tables all shed their mundanity when married to rockets and fireworks and suddenly turned loose and ignited into frenetic life. The work is profoundly serious in its laughter, its concern with the possibilities of failure, and with the anticipation of an event as well as the event itself.

Born in Walser’s hometown of Biel, the Swiss painter and sometime writer Sylvia Vögel’s works are often miniature, sometimes miniscule and always filled with ambiguous imagery, subfusc tones and dusky colouration. For Vögel, Walser’s life and work (which she had been aware of from an early age – her grandfather was briefly incarcerated in the same asylum at Waldau) represent an epitome of the anti-heroic in literature as well as the creative potential of failure.

The exhibition also includes ‘Relay – Analogue to Digital’, a project involving Fine Art BA and MFA students from Newcastle University that used the example of Walser’s ‘Microscripts’ to explore ideas of compression and expansion of thought or information. Working with Holly Antrum the students follow the idea of a private shorthand into compressions of time sparingly captured onto a single roll of Super 8 film. By entering each roll of film into a ‘relay’ for editing with another member of the group, the students pass each other the baton of authorship and explore collectively their choices around abstraction or narrative in digital-analogue film.

The exhibition is supported by the Swiss Arts Council Pro Helvetia. Festival Robert Walser supported by Newcastle University, New York Review Books, Robert Walser-Zentrum, Culture Lab Newcastle.

The Festival Robert Walser is a series of events across Newcastle running 19-23 March. For more information go to www.instituterobertwalser.com