Günther Uecker, a member of the antiexpressionist group Zero, is one of several artists who perceived the power of mass media as dangerous and destructive. He is known for incorporating nails in his paintings and objects, which result in sensitive, pictorially structured plays of light and shadow on them. In his nailed-up TV (1963), Uecker reverses what he considers telecommunications’ inherently negative energy on the technical apparatus by hammering hundreds of metal nails into a television’s housing. His aim is not merely to disturb the program being broadcast, but to deprive the device of its actual functionality.
Uecker understands the television as a mass medium and discerns it as a highly powerful instrument of global communications. Television viewing is also known to place its viewers in a passive, almost dreamlike state, which is why Uecker processed TV as a diabolical tool, demonizing its appearance. His use of hammering nails into an object recalls the tradition associated with powerful nkondi nail fetish figures of the Congo, in which nails would be hammered into a figure to provoke action against an enemy or transgressor.
Günther Uecker studied painting at the Kunsthochschule Berlin-Weißensee (Berlin-Weissensee University) from 1949 to 1953, where he was influenced by social realism. He continued his studies in 1955 at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf (Dusseldorf Art Academy) under the Expressionist printmaker Otto Pankok (1893–1966). Uecker remained in Düsseldorf, where he joined a vibrant emerging art scene and became interested in the philosophies of Buddhism and Taoism. His art practice had a turning point in 1957 when he hammered nails into his canvases. Uniting Buddhist meditation with art making, Uecker explored the ritual repetition of hammering and the reductive abstraction the nails’ shadows cast on canvas. In 1960, Uecker began to add kinetic components, such as engines, to his works. He was included among forty artists in a series of one night pop-up exhibitions in Düsseldorf organized by Heinz Mack (b. 1931) and Otto Piene (1928–2014), the founders of the anti-Expressionist ZERO movement. Uecker’s work was displayed in an exhibition entitled Das Rote Bild (The Red Image) on April 24, 1958. He joined ZERO in 1961. Later he participated in Documenta, Kassel (1968) and the Venice Biennale (1970). After the ZERO group dissolved in 1966, Uecker turned to Conceptualism, body art and theatre design.