Visitors entering Leon Billerbeck’s multimedia installation Ataxia /Ataraxia are immersed in a complex cosmos consisting of various audiovisual elements. “Photographic reliefs,” as the fragile constructions of printed paper are called by the artist, are positioned between meter-long photographs that hang from the ceiling into the exhibition space and spill across the floor like waves. (*1)  A sound composition can be heard, and video works are on display. The visitors’ inner compass—north, south, east, and west—seems to be overruled by the plethora of visual impressions. Gradually, however, details of this densely woven framework of images and motifs become recognizable. Billerbeck takes us on a journey to unknown realms, awakening associations with his computer-generated, collage-like island landscapes and details of specific landscapes. Images showing fragments of human limbs, folded hands, a face, skin, and hair appear elsewhere. View by view, the viewers encounter the subjects and motifs of the installation as they move hrough the diorama. Integrated text fragments and the titles provide clues to understanding these works. Terms from biochemistry and human genetics such as “Genome,” PCR” (the abbreviation for polymerase chain reaction), and “Curl”; terms from media technology such as “Loop”; references to existential sentiments that tell of loss of control, chaos, and fear; and fragments of experiences— evocative of journeys on the high seas perhaps—such as “Sweet Anchor” and “Sea Breeze” create associations with processes in medicine and media, emotional states, and living environments as well as insular, lyrical cosmoses. A closer look at the overall title reveals the unifying factor
that brings together the loose ends of the various visual, auditory, and text-based threads of the complex narrative that Billerbeck has casually dispersed throughout the space. Ataxia (from the Greek word atax’a for “disorder”) is a coordination disorder affecting muscle movement. (*2) Ataraxia (from the Greek word atarax’a for “imperturbability”) was a term used by Epicureans and Pyrrhonists to describe the ideal state of tranquility and emotional composure in the face of strokes of fate.(*3) Chaos and calm, these two poles, are the centrifugal forces in this installation. Before Billerbeck turned ten, his father began to noticeably exhibit symptoms of type 3 spinocerebellar ataxy (SCA3), a degenerative disease of the cerebellum that affects coordinated movement. Victims of this rare, genetic illness slowly lose control over their bodies. Ataxia / Ataraxia is the product of Billerbeck’s collaboration with his father. The artworks that they
created together are interlinked in many ways. Billerbeck accompanied his father with his camera and also made audio recordings. In one, Frank Billerbeck, who is interested in New Wave and Dark Wave music of the 1980s, laboriously recites the lyrics of four of his favorite songs, including “She’s Lost Control” by Joy Division from 1979. Combining the recording with other sounds, Billerbeck created an installation. He extracted sound bites from the original songs and, inspired by the collaborative creative process and based on medical processes such as PCR, created new sounds by copying them. The blurry images seen in one of the videos were created by his father on his daily ventures into his immediate surroundings using an old Sony camcorder from the 1990s that had not been used for many years. His son, who had encouraged him to make the footage, edited the videos afterward. “Portrait of a Loner with Sea Breeze,” another video piece, consists of a video loop of a still from these recordings.
The collaboration was not defined by concrete ideas, as reflected in the printing and copying experiments as well as the fragmentary representations of landscapes and bodies, but by the desire to give an artistic expression to the indescribable: all emotions concerning the irreversible illness, the loss of control that it brought, and his father’s current condition. In his art, Billerbeck is especially interested in, as he puts it, “articulating things, existence itself. What is essential. To strive for the pure experience somehow, or at least to imagine it. The condition of becoming results from that, and the state of articulating it in new ways, a transformation in every experience itself, in the relationship between us and our surroundings.” He finds this especially interesting “in the sense of the fleeting impressions that one collects when photographing, but also generally when making art.” He continues, “You try to make something materialize that initially only exists in your mind, as an atmosphere, as a feeling. There is a reciprocal processuality behind this, the inability of people to retain something specific, to simply perceive a given as ‘pure’ and ‘objective.’” For Billerbeck, who is referring here to the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl (*4) , “this brings something vulnerable and truthful into the artistic process. Ability and the possible, ignorance and inability, but still striving for it—it is a search.” (*5) Billerbeck knows how to subtly reveal a phenomenon that is often left in the dark. With the help of his art, he allows us to participate in his personal and artistic process of development and his journey; guided by his inspired and hopeful gaze, in spite of all difficulties and the hopelessness of his fathers personal destiny. 

*1 in correspondance with the artist, January 2021.

* 2 See “A disorder affecting the coordination of sequences of movement, usually resulting from the lack of coordination of different muscle groups (asynergy) and due to incorrect assessment of distances (dysmetria). Clinical symptoms are uncontrolled and superfluous movements as well as difficulty standing and walking, trouble with eye movement, dysarthria, diadochokinesia, and intention tremors.”

*3 Gisela Striker, “Ataraxia: Happiness as Tranquillity,” “The Monist” (Oxford) 73 (1990): 97–110.

*4 See Edmund Hussel, Martin Heidegger: Phänomenologie” (1927), ed. Renato Cristin (Berlin, 1999) and Texte zur Phänomenologie des inneren Zeitbewusstseins (1893–1917),Husserliana, vol. 10, ed. Rudolf Bernet (Hamburg, 1985).

*5 See note 1.

Text by Babette Marie Werner, 2021.

Exhibition Views of installed works at Deichtorhallen Hamburg, Künstlerhaus Dortmund, Landesmuseum Koblenz, Bauhaus-Universität Weimar, 2019-2021. Photos by Leon Billerbeck and Henning Rogge.