In the summer of 2006 I was working as the Director of Marketing for the Palm Springs Art Museum in California. Every afternoon I would leave my post in the administration building and walk over into the museum to sit in front of my favorite large scale Helen Frankenthaler painting. A lush ten-foot by ten-foot field of beige smudged with sensual organic forms in fuchsia pink and orange covered the painting that provided me with my daily sense of peace and calm amidst a non-stop and creative work atmosphere. I have always been aware of art’s ability to touch the human soul in a myriad of ways, which is in fact, the main reason that I love and make art personally. The art that touches me most is the kind that can transform me away from my personal body, spirit and mind into the global consciousness of our common human existence on this world by way of relating to the things inside me that remind me we are all in this life together.
I stumbled upon Austrian artist Hans “Biwi” Lechner in this same museum that summer through his global social sculpture The Common Denominator in a synchronistic twist of fate that leads me to this moment, today.
On one of my afternoon jaunts into the main building I noticed a strange rock on the base of a Henry Moore sculpture. I picked up this rock, a smooth grey river stone, and noticed the black graphic drawing on it of what looked like an androgynous figure holding a stone. On the back of the rock was a website address that led me to artist Hans Biwi Lechner’s website.
Back at my desk, I reviewed the website with glee as this guy was right up my artistic alley. According to the website, Hans would travel the world every summer and leave these round grey stones, adorned with his self-created graphic upon them for anyone to find. Once found, the new stone’s owner would take a photo of themselves with the stone and send it to Hans for inclusion in the photo gallery on his site. The photo gallery on the site was impressive with over 200 photos crossing a twenty-year project period. This included celebrities like Dennis Hopper side by side with rock stars and supermodels, as well as common, everyday people from all over the globe in their cultural outfits amidst the circumstances of their ordinary lives like tribal aborigines, sheiks, American businessmen, women and more. The photo gallery covered the entire stratosphere of people across economic, socio-political, religious and lifestyle preference lines all linked together by this perpetually placed stone.
The moment I finished reading the website I got a call at the museum from my good friend Steve Lowe. Steve Lowe had been William Burroughs assistant until his death and was now the owner of the Beat Hotel in Desert Hot Springs. The hotel, located on an isolated property in the middle of a poor desert town was the last living shrine to the Beats and contained simple modern white rooms, each adorned with an old manual typewriter. The lobby and other areas of the hotel contained glass cases full of archived Beat literature and other paraphernalia. The hotel never advertised but attracted artists and writers worldwide via word of mouth networks inspired by the love of the road and the Beat philosophy. That year, I also happened to be writing my book of short fiction every weekend at the hotel for free and was perpetually entertained by Lowe’s roaming circus of guests that included famous poets like New York’s Max Blagg as well as the random ex-Andy Warhol factory denizen.
Steve was calling me to tell me about this fabulous Austrian artist who was staying there named Hans Biwi Lechner. The synchronicity was so strong, as well as my “life is too short” philosophy so I headed up there on a work night to meet this artist. Long into the night we bonded and talked about his various art projects, all meant to connect humanity on a worldwide level and feed us back the inherent realization we arrived here with through birth that we are truly all in this existence together.
For the past five years, I have remained friends with “Biwi”, hosting he and his artistic partner, the artist Catherine Pandora, on their return trips to the states in the summer.
This past year, I ventured to his side of the world where I spent two weeks learning about his life history, his country, and the events in his life that turned him into the man with a mission that he is today. With his fresh Sisyphus tattoo on his forearm, denoting his mission to roll the stone up the hill of humanity to get everyone to realize we are all in this together, he enlightened me about his role as an artist.
Born in 1956 in Linz, Austria to an engineer father and housewife mother, Hans and his sister spent much of their early years back and forth, living a lot of the time at their grandmother’s house where they were cared for and raised mostly by their aunts.
Hans was very close to his aunts who told him of the Hitler-era and what they had to go through as an Austrian people as a part of that time. He learned how Hitler manipulated the people of Austria, and specifically the youth, by giving them false senses of power in otherwise ordinary lives where they felt they had none. These memories haunted Hans’ psyche and as he grew up and developed his identity into an artist, he realized that his mission was to counteract the ugliness in the history. He wanted to become the man with the “other message”, one of peace and unity. This ingrained upon him early where it continued to inform his lifelong career in art.
Hans, like most artists, didn’t fare well in school. He was much more interested in spending his days fishing by the same beautiful lakes that artists like Egon Schiele and Gustav Klimt had gazed across themselves as they expressed the people and landscapes of the country.
He ventured into art school in 1974 after high school only to find the instructors obsessed with teaching him to paint in the photorealistic style with a one-hair brush. Frustrated by this old school system, Hans left school and traveled to East Asia where he spent his days like Gaugin, finding inspiration in the indigenous culture. He painted fishermen and nature and found his spiritual core. He made money by selling necklaces on the beach each day, walking back and forth across the shoreline tantalizing tourists with his wares.
It was then that a major pivotal moment in his life occurred while on a boat that capsized in the ocean. This major tragedy dumped all of the boats travelers’ into the sea and Hans witnessed many people drowning and dying while he floated in the water for hours wondering if he would too die or if he would be rescued. While in the water he realized that everyone floating along with him at that moment of deep trauma were equalized and powerless. His sense of connection to other people was so intense in this time of potential death that he had a revelation. He realized that the common question everyone faces on this earth is “What is the meaning of life?” and as he finally became one of the rescued survivors he vowed to express this message through his art going forward.
He spent a stint in the Austrian army after this accident where he learned how to survive under any circumstance and then went back to school to study art history. He wanted knowledge of all art so that he could carve his own voice into the overall fabric of cultural history. During this time he became greatly inspired by both ancient hieroglyphs and contemporary artists like Keith Haring who were offering cutting edge versions of historical markings. He was also greatly motivated by the graffiti and street artists of New York City and San Francisco during this time.
One day while sitting on a pyramid land form on the Danube River during this time, he came across a flat grey rock that reminded him of his early love of rocks and stones and how he had always collected them and written upon them during his youth. He decided that these rocks, these permanent gifts of nature that would outlast the human beings on this planet, were the perfect canvas for him. He created his signature graphic of an androgynous form holding a stone to paint on each rock going forward. This graphic became his symbol for that most important question that connects us all: What is the meaning of life? Thus his journey as a man, who rolls stones like Sisyphus, across the world to make his mark, began.
Today, these rocks have rolled to over 58 countries in the world as part of his Sisyphus, Rolling Stone, and Common Denominator projects. A living theater has been created of all the participants in this global social sculpture.
A short description of each of these projects follows below:
In 1986 Hans found a thirty-pound heavy stone on the banks of the Danube River in Austria. He took it home and painted it with a symbol, created as the graphic representation of the question for the meaning of life in the shape of a genderless human figure looking up to a triangle.
For the past 20 years, Hans has been “rolling” the stone all over the world to places where he photographs people with his stone. He has traveled to 48 countries and met and photographed more than 2,000 people holding the rolling stone in their hands. This has included common folk, celebrities, tribal aborigines and native peoples and more.
This conceptual art project is a work in progress that connects and unites people beyond religion, color, money or nationality. People are united in their common search for the meaning of life.
We are all connected with each other in this quest.
In ancient Greek mythology Sisyphus was sentenced by the Gods to roll a stone against a steep hill. Each time he reached the top, the stone would stumble back down thus engaging him in a perpetual struggle to roll the stone back up the hill.
Hans Stone wondered which kind of stone Sisyphus was rolling up the hill. He found his own personal stone on the banks of the Danube River in Austria and decided to roll the stone through the world to different people and places.
The Sisyphus project is an artwork that shows the artist as Sisyphus holding the” rolling stone” in his hands as a self-sculpture. In this living theatre Hans “rolled ” the stone several times around the world from the roofs of Paris through the Australian desert, from the Himalaya to the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, from the Ganga River in India to the Moais on Easter Island. The stone has rolled over 300,000 miles at this time.
THE COMMON DENOMINATOR
This is the project through which I met the artist in which he places the grey, round stones across the world in random places for people to find. On the back of these stones is a direction to visit his website where the recipients then submit their own photos holding the stone that become part of the global picture gallery.
Hans has met many new friends and lifelong tribe members through this unique project, which compels people to experience the wonder of finding a treasured piece of original art, and then sharing their participation with the world through the artist’s online vehicle.
While I was in Austria, I was privileged to view the archives of Hans’ life work. One particular archive, of his project The Rolling Stone, is particularly poignant in that the sheer size of the participant photos is astounding. There are over 300 pictures collected from Hans’ personal interactions with individuals whom he asked to hold the stones.
Many of these photographs come with their own unique stories such as the time he met Dennis Hopper in a European bar which resulted in a talk about art and an invitation for Hans to come back the next day to photograph the actor with a stone.
Another meaningful tidbit accompanies a picture of a Buddhist religious man who was sitting in meditation in front of the corpse of a recently passed religious leader. Hans encountered this man and told him of his project. “Do people understand this project?” asked the Buddhist. Hans answered, “I don’t think so,” at the time but was encouraged by the Buddhist to continue
In the Himalayas, on the Pakistan and India border, a Muslim man was Hans’ driver through the country. During their twisting journey up the mountains, breathing became more difficult for both car and human as the oxygen thinned. Hans explained his project to the driver, explaining that it was uniting people through the question: What is the meaning of life? The Muslim man looked at Hans skeptically and asked, “Who is the only god on earth?” creating a moment of tension” and Hans answered, “Allah,” thus cementing the brother-like relationship for the journey ahead as Hans realized his answer meant that everyone’s version of God was the same God.
In the early nineties, Hans wrote the Mayor of Vienna Helmut Zilk a letter asking him to participate in the project. He was invited to the “red saloon” in the Mayor’s quarters with his stone where he enjoyed two whiskeys with the man, and then shot a photo in front of the Austrian flag.
Aside from the stone projects, Hans perpetuates other series that each carries its own global message as well.
Gaining inspiration from one of the world’s most commonly loved and beautifully composed pieces of music, Hans has created distinct graphics that represent individual moments of language and beat within the universal song. These are painted on stones and woven throughout the world to show that art and music is a common string between us all that defies syntax and vocabulary. He also created beautiful, colorful prints out of these graphics.
Everywhere the artist has traveled he has realized that the one common thing that every human being sees, feels, lives with and individually owns is a “piece of the sky.” To denote this, he travels often with a blue suitcase that represents that “piece of the sky” and photographs himself with it all over the worlds.
MODERN DAY HIEROGLYPHS
Evolving his love of markings, Hans oftentimes creates individual contemporary hieroglyphs to represent individual moments in time or memories from his life that are filled with specifically high emotional timbres. These paintings become unique renditions of a distinct time in the artist’s life or history at large.
APOSTLES OF THE APOCALYPSE
In the artist’s most recent project, created from his own experience with aging as a man in the world, and the looming presence of his own mortality, Hans has created a series of skulls that represent our limited time on this earth. This series provokes reflection on the overriding artist’s theme of why we are all here and what we are doing why we are alive in the fleeting moments we still have.
Newtopia managing editor KIMBERLY NICHOLS is author of the book of literary short fiction Mad Anatomy, a contributing editor to 3AM Magazine and has exhibited as a conceptual artist throughout California for the past decade. Her non-fiction articles have appeared in magazines and media internationally. She was a founding editor of Newtopia in its former incarnation where she was also a member of the NewPoetry Collective. She is currently at work on her novel Fish Tales: Looking for the Bird with the Golden Feather. Follow her daily beat poetry on Twitter @LITGFOA.