In my work, I examine and compare the signs used in abstract communication systems. These come from areas such as history, ethnology, writing system research, religion or the natural sciences and cover a period dating from prehistoric rock drawings up to modern-day electronically data processing. It is the graphical qualities of these signs, which is most important for me and not the philosophical content or scientific significance.

In the former synagogue in Oerlinghausen, Schwabach, Erfurt and Wittlich little more than the name reminds one of the religious significance of this space and the rituals that have taken place within it. In my exhibition there, I would like to call this significance to mind and to return it to its original place.

The works for this site-specific project are based on the Hebraic writing. This alphabet, derived from the Phonetician alphabet, consists of 22 letters and is one of the oldest alphabets in the world. It is a holy alphabet. According to rabbinical accounts Yahweh wrote the 10 commandments in black fire upon white flames emanating from his lap. This is symbolized even today by the ritual of writing the Torah scrolls (the five books of Moses) and the holy books with their black square letters (black fire) on white vellum made from the hides of kosher animals (white fire). Only when these two elements are united do Yahweh commandments, and thus Yahweh himself, come into being. The letters are embodied with great creative powers. Yahweh created heaven and earth with his words. When a practising Jew speaks one of the letters of this alphabet, he arouses its divine spark, which returns into the heavenly centre/Yahweh from whence this spark originated. The series of works about the Hebraic script consists of 22 square, individual sheets, each 27 3/4 in. The carrier is paper, upon which painted layers of yellow red and grey have been covered with white glazes. The white ground is to refer to the above-mentioned white fire. Additionally, the whitish ground alludes to the desert with its shades of yellow, red and grey. The desert has surrounded the Israelites from their beginnings to the present day. For this reason, white is the colour of the tablecloth used on the Sabbath. It reminds one of the manna that fell from the heavens in the desert on this day. The modified and transformed letters of the Hebraic alphabet appear in blue against this white background. According to the Old Testament Commandment (4. Moses, Chapter 15, Verse 38-41) tassels (Zizith) are to be attached to the four corners of the ancient Jewish robes. These tassels are made of strings, one of which has to be blue. Every time the faithful look at this tassel they are to think of Yahweh commandments and obey them. Blue has ceased to be used in tassels today. The ancient robe evolved into a prayer shawl (Tallith) with four white tassels in the corners. Nevertheless the religious significance of the colour blue remained the quintessential Jewish colour, the divine colour and the equilibrium between black and white, day and night and heights and depths.

A publication is to accompany the project. The 22 letters employed are to be depicted. Additionally, there will be some illustrations with the signs in the room. Furthermore, this publication is to contain an art historical text and a text on Hebraic writing by an authority working at a scientific institution in Judaic research. The title of this publication and the exhibition is like the first line of the Torah (Genesis Chapter 1, Verse 1) In the beginning God created the Heaven and the Earth.


As can be ascertained from the previous, this project shall recall the one-time religious and sacred significance of this space. By selecting these characters and this colour scheme, this significance will returned to the former synagogue once again. Script and colour are components of the Torah and the Tallith; they are signs of religious thought and ritual practice.

Johannes Senf                                                                                                                                                                                         Cologne 1997

                                                                                                                                                                 translation from German by Michael Tighe
1996; Kremepigments, acrylic, Archespaper; 22 parts, each 27 3/4 in.

About the work of Johannes Senf in the Kunstverein Oerlinghausen

Johannes Senf's artistic work has been preoccupied with sign systems: with abstract, generally valid bearers of information. For about six years, the artist has collected sign families from all imaginable cultural and scientific areas. He organises them, decodes them, then compares them to each other and develops elements of his multi-part murals from them. The trigger of his interest in international symbolic codes was a trip to Hong Kong where the written characters on advertising billboards fascinated him, despite the fact – or perhaps just because – that they remained closed off from him. As he has engaged himself since then with signs, ciphers and codes, he always looks at the graphic appearance first, just as that first time in Hong Kong, before he decodes and processes the message embodied in the symbol. During the past few years, the basic foundation upon which Senf has built his exhibition projects has been a distinct penchant for systematising, a clear continuity of his concept and precisely handcrafted implementations. Especially significant, however, are his references to location which lend an unmistakable, individual touch to his projects. I am consciously speaking of a reference to location and not a reference to space because the location to which a work refers must not be identical to the exhibition space; rather, it can also include a city or region. For the artist in the first place, it is about the construction of intellectual "bridges" between the historic or current function of an exhibition location and a certain associated system of signs. Thus, Johannes Senf has occupied himself with work for the Cologne-based wire manufacturers Felten & Guilleaume using copper, the scrap material from wire. Here, he displays a copper-based assortment of secret signs that were used in the Middle Ages in order to encode the alleged recipe for creating gold. – For the exhibition project on occasion of the Cologne Photo Scene 1998, the artist used signs from photographic technology in order to create a contextual link to the exhibition's setting. - When the Weimar-born artist was invited to bring his work to Representant of the Thuringia Federal State by the German Government in Bonn, he commemorated the 400-year tradition of glass industry cultivated in this federal state by examining the alchemical codes for the basic elements of glass production (sand, soda and potash). - One year ago, he had the opportunity to prepare a project for the city's Kramer Museum in a former Franciscan abbey in Kempen and to contemplate the symbols of the five largest world religions which he united into a pictographic ecumenism. Whether it be geographic symbols from cartography, Stone Age pictograms from caves, mathematic signs or codes from a computer data flow plan – the historic, geographic and cultural framework of his interests has no boundaries and appears continually expandable in light of the substantial collection of material that Johannes Senf has found during the course of the Years for projects not yet realised. While working, he constantly encounters new abstract semiotic systems again and again that are unknown to him and to his contemporaries. Then, he analyzes and interprets these systems, thereby identifying their formal and contextual characteristics.

At the beginning of each project, Johannes Senf sets off on a search in order to find possible ties between location and work and to isolate them before he develops concrete ideas about his work in progress. If he comes to a conclusion about his concept, then, his next step will be integrating his concept with specific spatial conditions and plan them accordingly. In his Cologne studio, the individual components are developed that he will later use for his multi-part wall installation.

The symbolic constellations which he chooses to create a specific exhibit ambience are then transcribed by the artist in a quasi-meditative painting process on paper. The individual symbols then undergo formal transformations, through which he deconstructs them, abstracts them, or reduces them to their most succinct display format. Each symbol is on a square-shaped piece of paper with the following measurements: 11 3/4 in., 19 3/4 in., or 27 3/4 in. (as in his most current exhibition). Each component is seen by the artist as a part of a superordinated whole for which he continually sets his own rules when he produces a series of pictures; the basic shape of a square also becomes a part of this, or the consistent width of the lines which allows him to create his symbols accurately and precisely. The painting process also is a gradual one and the coloured surfaces are constantly becoming more and more dense and homogeneous, step by step. The form of the symbols then becomes clear and rich in contrast. Also, the individual colours also may have a contextual link to his concept, which can be seen in his current project.

The most intelligent and most beatific symbolic system of humanity is without doubt the script – or more precisely put: the different scripts that were developed along approximately 5000 years in order to abstractly fix speech and to communicate between distances created by both space and time. The fascination with scripts was the origin of Johannes Senf's signs project and the dispute over written materials has played a foremost role in his art since then. The first historical attempts to write down oral communication were put into pictographic systems consisting of hundreds of pictures that speak for themselves. Then, an idiographic phase followed the pictographic in which syntactical and sentence-building elements were distilled from the pictorial symbols. A further development from this early written language was the syllabic system, for instance, cuneiform writing.

As the third phase, which may have taken place in the second fourth of the second century before Christ in the Far Orient – was the ground-breaking discovery of the alphabet, or system, which includes signs which stand for each sound in a language, typically consisting of about 22 to 28 symbols. This type of written system was the simplest of all scripts and it is also depicts the most complicated, for it must be able to represent all existing concepts and idiomatic sayings in a small repertoire of easily learned basic elements.

With an alphabetical script, communication which bridges the gap between space and time must exist first and it must also evolve while encompassing the active roles of writer and reader. Not only the novel possibility of written communication made this medium so explosive, but also the change in speech performance between people which was changed by the written word and its new positivist, analytically comprehensive view that it lent to factual representations of reality. The early alphabets were still strongly formed according to ritual activities from which they emerged.

The Semitic alphabet belongs to the oldest alphabetical written systems from which the conceptualisation of our own alphabetical system is derived. There is no explicit evidence about its origin, however it is assumed to be of Phoenician origin and was the first language which consisted of 22 characters. Johannes Senf has been occupied with the Phoenician alphabet since 1996. For his exhibition at the Oerlinghausen Kunstverein, Johannes Senf has chosen old Hebraic square-script and thereby, creates a link to the history of the building which has housed the local Art Society for the past 25 years. Earlier, it was a synagogue which was sold before 1933 and thanks to these circumstances, was saved from destruction at the hands of the Nazis. Johannes Senf would like to link his installation to the former ritualistic and religious meaning of this location, thus commemorating it. In regards to the immediate link to location, his artistic work with the Hebraic alphabet does not openly refer to the prominent role of written script, words and books of the Jewish religion, for the Jewish religion is seemingly based on books and the Hebraic script has an immediate connection with God. According to rabbinical tradition, Yahweh wrote the Ten Commandments in black on white fire – which must have been written in an earlier pictographic script, for there was no existing alphabet in the time of Moses. Until now, the holy plot is retold and symbolised in the ritual writings of the Torah (the five books of Moses) and the holy books with black square-script on white vellum from kosher animals. In that God created the world from the power of his word, the word – and with it, speech and script – becomes quasi-identical to God's act of creation. In his exhibition title, "In the Beginning, God created Heaven and Earth", Johannes Senf quotes the first line of the Torah, as well as the Old Testament (Genesis 1:1) and reminds us of the creative potential which the script offered to Judaism.

His wall installation created for Oerlinghausen consists of 22 symbols of the Hebraic alphabet which spoke to him formally and typographically due to their basic quadratic form. The backgrounds of the symbols are different colour palates derived from yellow, red and grey, which are on paper and then overlaid with white (associated to the mystical white fire) lamination. To a trained eye, those with a colourful background and overlaid white should evoke the picture of the desert as origin and home of the Jewish people. The letters, themselves, appear in blue. Even today, blue with white are the Israeli national colours. A commandment in the Old Testament (4 Moses, 15:38-41) commands that the tassels of the antique Jewish robes also have blue thread which should continually remind its wearer of Yahweh's commandments.

Johannes Senf has centered the creation of his work on history and on the religious meaning of his exhibition location. His exhibition for the former synagogue in Oerlingshausen displays his approach, which is complex and wrought with meaning. 22 simple and unobstructive symbols do not only offer the key to one of the oldest and fate-wrought languages in the world. They also salvage the fullness of historical and cultural links. The minimalistic visual material slowly begins to deepen in meaning when thoughtfully observed.

Johannes Senf likes to connect his work to the theories of Vilem Flusser, who conjectured that written script has been irrevocably disappearing into the virtual depths of electronic communication. "Only historians and other specialists will need to learn how to read and write in the future", he says in his book, The Script. Johannes Senf is undoubtedly one type of such specialists who is working to prevent the gradual disappearance and dying out of written language and he uses his art as a reserve for all written signs, making them available to the world.

Dr. Sabine Schütz                                                                                                                                                                                    Cologne 2000

                                                                                                                                                                Translation from German by Michael Tighe