High in the mountains the air is very thin. Most of the time snow abounds. Often the sky is also white. Zagged rock formations, like portly, prehistoric reptiles, extend outwards in a gigantic, seemingly endless panorama. Nowhere other than in the mountains do you feel time as so eternal, and in no other place does such silence reign. The installation White Out, which Heike Weber presented in the spring of 2000 in Hedah (Centrum voor Hedendaagse Kunst) in Maastricht/Holland, takes us up into just such dizzying heights. To regions where everything is white. To a basically perilous situation: “white out” is namely the term for a state of complete disorientation that mountain climbers experience when they tarry too long in glacier country. It is extreme physical and mental exhaustion that can lead to hallucinations. The installation in Hedah strikes us like a fata morgana in a desert of snow. In a long, blindingly white room, which was not only given a new coat of paint before the installation but also a new white floor, the portrayal of a chain of mountains runs around the walls: an outline drawing in red that sketches in a landscape with a fore-, middle- and background. A shorthand of smaller forms within the drawing designates highs and lows, possibly also groups of trees, bushes or snow-free spots.
White Out is all about the way it feels and the way it looks when you lose your bearings, when you lose track of the thread. This thread is literally taken up via a red plastic cord which Heike Weber uses to depict just this type of Alpine landscape that threatens us with a loss of orientation. What is, consequently, fascinating about White Out is the subtle coordination between a technical procedure and its thematic implication. With the use of a clothesline wound around countless silver pins about 5 cm from the wall, Heike Weber summons up an almost illusionistic drawing of a mountainous region, whereby the production process itself recalls the act of scaling heights. Like mountain climbing, where slowly and with concentration peg after peg is hammered into the wall along which you gradually and carefully advance with rope and carabiners, the line of the drawing develops continuously from one pin to the next. It is not drawn in the actual sense, and seen close up the arrangement resembles more an abstract sculptural configuration. Only from a certain distance does the whole come together to form a composite picture, whereby the loose ‘linear swing’ has a definite, handwritten character. Directness and immediacy as the essential features of the drawing are, however, here merely cited. Although - as in many earlier works - Heike Weber reverts in White Out to the drawing as a primal medium, she does so only in order to expand, enrich and re-interpret it. The mythic origin of the drawing is hereby kept in mind, like the scrawls on the walls of prehistoric caves or the use of the line as the traditionally most reduced medium for evoking mimesis or a way of marking, or also the original communicational aspect of drawing that stems from its central position between script and painting.
The drawing is universal and not bound by time. Its effectiveness, in contrast to that of painting, has, up to now, hardly come under question.(1) This is owed to the fact that the term drawing has been given a wider context than the other genres and allowed a greater freedom as to its means. This becomes clear, for instance, in a statement on the myth of drawing by Ernst H. Gombrich: “In certain parts of Alaska, young Eskimo girls illustrate the stories they tell with small pictures that they draw in the snow. For this purpose they carry tools with them so as to always have the possibility of structuring their stories in a more interesting way.”(2) Thus Picasso also proceeded like these Eskimo girls when he drew with light, or Max Ernst when he made an ephemeral drawing in sand (Fait pour périr, 1934) that could barely be photographed before it disappeared under the next wave. But we can also still talk of drawing when bulldozers trace linear formations in the landscape, which go back to Dennis Oppenheim’s thumbprint (Identity Stretch, 1970/75), or when Marijke van Warmerdam puts her Skytypers (1997) into the heavens via jet-plane condensation trails. Heike Weber, too, uses her very own quasi unique instruments for her graphics. For a long time now she has not limited drawing to the placing of lines on paper. Her graphic tools can be clotheslines, sticky labels, or hairnets. Her preference for a graphic-linear art form has very much to do with the possibility of thematizing what lies between the lines - i.e., the white and the empty space - which necessarily becomes instrumental in the emergence of drawing per se. In White Out, for example, the white areas, the floor, the walls and the ceiling, are given a very high status in the constitution of the picture. The mountain chain placed at eye level is raised above the empty surface of the receded wall zones and floats, so to speak, in space. The fragmentariness of the drawing, its potential to install cutout signs on the empty picture plane, is used by Heike Weber in White Out to the full - within the spatial disposition of the drawing. From the contrast between the cursory graphic notations on the topography and the white room, she makes the viewer’s angle of vision an enigmatically blurred one.
No later than now the video film needs mentioning that, so to speak, undertakes the function of an introduction to White Out in the Hedah anteroom. Here, just above eye level, a loop of film is beamed onto the wall and shows a downhill ski run in a sunny mountain range from the perspective of a camera hung around the neck of the artist herself. In addition, we hear the original recording turned up relatively loud: an unrhythmical cluster of sounds from a cutting wind and the harsh creak of skis over hard snow. Since these sounds are clearly audible from the adjoining room when visitors view the red-lined mountain panorama, the visual and the acoustic impressions merge. By means of sound, the picture of the quiet landscape effectively forfeits its cool and distancing aesthetic. Human presence and physical experience unexpectedly slip into the viewer’s way of seeing. The beautiful, artificial picture is enriched by the actual and disturbing practical experience via a camera angle and a sound that greatly intensify the impression of disequilibrium and physical effort. The distorted view we get through a camera that dangles from the skier’s neck suggests a quite specific experience of movement, simulates stumbling, reeling and falling. These effects result from an ‘unconscious’ apparatus, which - as in Dan Graham’s Body Press or in Steve McQueen’s video Catch - mechanically records all the views on offer, not at all like a pair of eyes that can take in these impressions and integrate them into a whole picture. There are also some passages in the White Out video where we suspect a total collapse, where peak and piste, mountain and tree, sky and valley are hopelessly scrambled, where in addition the tempo is strangely slowed; the film comes almost to a standstill, only to continue its descent when the camera has completed its swing. If you look at the large wall drawing after having seen the video, you inevitably wonder where in all this mighty panorama such an individual experience could be placed, and as what. Additionally irritating is the idea of taking a ride into nothingness, for each imagined downhill run in this picture ended invariably in the void, landed in “white out”.
Balance and road-holding skill, stability and destabilization are the central themes in all of Heike Weber’s oeuvre. Although, from its pictorial aspect, we are dealing here with a genuinely sculptural category (which has a corresponding psychological metaphor at its disposal), the artist does her work on it mostly through the medium of the drawing. Because of the proximity of hand to eye, the coordination between hand and brain, drawing has always implied both: the relationship to the body and a strongly marked mental, conceptual component that had, for instance, a lasting effect on Beuys, for whom drawing and thinking were one. Heike Weber’s augmentation of graphic concepts to include space as well as the physical experience of space is once more determined by the drawing’s inherent relationship between the physical and the intellect. Behind this stands, first of all and unmistakably, a sculptural way of thinking, and in fact the first drawing in space the artist did, Pelikan (1997), developed from the preceding hairnet works, just as these stemmed directly from her works on polystyrene cubes. The technique of subtraction practiced in these cubes - the refining down of the polystyrene panels just short of friability - plumbs the limits of the material in its stablest form, the cube. These transparent structures, subject to the whim of the slightest breath of air, present themselves in their serial arrangement as a cryptic reflection on the hoards of minimalist boxes and the purist theory of the material’s intrinsicality that they preach. And as though to take the reduction of the material a step further (without drifting into immateriality), Heike Weber then began working with hairnets, an elastic and flexible wisp of material. It is one that is structurally related to the line, which finds expression in countless drawings up to and including a pulsating net screen saver. The hairnets that veil a wall rely on minimal visibility for their effect. Barely perceptible, they shimmer before the eye and yet radically affect the space available to them. The reductive element is what again comes into its own in the technique of removal used in Pelikan. Here the walls of the exhibition room were freshly plastered and then stained with blue ink. Subsequent work with an ink eraser is what first extends the parallel wavy lines to their wall-filling dimension and creates the illusion of a room in motion and pliable. This is even more evident when it is the floor that is superimposed with lines, as in Salonstücke 6 (Städtische Gallerie Villa Zanders, Bergisch Gladbach) or Drop (Kunstverein Arnsberg), both from 1998.
In contrast to White Out, which operates in a highly pictorial way, the contours drawn with a permanent marker on white vinyl flooring are much more abstract. Yet they can also be read as an image, and once again it is concepts from nature that prompt a large spectrum of associations to circulate and remain active. Waves in their most diverse metaphorical varieties are intimated, whereby trompe l’oeil effects, which suggest an up-and-down sway, share equal footing with a more schematic implementation. The spectrum produced here is a broad one and runs from natural phenomena - like stretches of beach marked by tidal waves - to diagrammatic depictions of sound waves, shock waves or the markings of geographical elevations on maps, etc. Amazingly, all these images come to mind without any concrete pictorial concept being specifically sought after. On the contrary: all thematic associations are owed to nothing other than a relatively simple, formal, graphic concept that consists essentially in a semi-automatic repetition of the same. It is apparently not at all insignificant that the specific configuration of lines results from a personal drawing style in which manual discipline and an improvised stroke are skillfully alternated. In the end, however, the result is by and large derived from the work process itself, which adheres to a rule once it is set up. The starting point is the given architectural situation. Thus the lines in the salon of the Villa Zanders develop from following the ground plan from outside inwards with a marker pen, whereby protruding wall elements like fireplace, pilaster or radiator trigger the pulsation in the red lines. Heike Weber’s reaction to the classical Schinkel architecture of the Kunstverein Arnsberg, on the other hand, is diametrically opposed. Starting from the exact center of the building’s ground plan, which is not located within the exhibition rooms themselves, parallel lines expand concentrically outwards like growth rings spreading in waves from inside outwards. Since the five exhibition rooms are arranged around the stairwell in a squared u-form, the curvilinear course of the drawing ties the separate rooms together in a kind of semi-circle, thereby redefining the strict axial symmetry of the architecture.
The air on the ground is also very thin. In their seductive aesthetics Heike Weber’s line drawings pose the existential question: can we trust the ground we walk on? The ground is in actual fact the foundation for all our acts and determines every move we make and every experience we undergo. Yet Heike Weber’s interventions teach us: There is only a short distance between taking a step to being left hanging in the air. “If ground doesn’t only stand for the here-and-now but also for duration, it can still sway just as we sway on it,” as Steven Connor writes on the significance of the ground, of walking and standing in works by Samuel Beckett and Bruce Nauman.(3) And it is exactly in this sense that Heike Weber’s floor drawings prompt viewers to a perceptive self-reflection, to a test of one’s own groundedness, as is the case in White Out. As genuine site-specific works that are put in place at and for the respective site, the theme of Heike Weber’s floor drawings is the here-and-now. Although in actuality these are hand drawn and thus static artworks, each of necessity requires viewers who move within the work’s compass and who perceive how wobbly they themselves are. It is no accident that your gaze is directed at your respective standpoint and not at the room or walls. And what you see there leads less to a general questioning of the condition humaine or to the statement that human existence is absurd - as is the case with Beckett or Nauman - but to a very pointed subversion of everything that is immobile, stagnant, fixed.
Vienna, October 2000
1 Cf. here Antonia Hoerschelmann, “Über Zeichnung, graphische Sammlungen and den erweiterten Kunstbegriff” in: Die Kunst der Linie. Möglichkeiten des Graphischen, Landesgalerie Oberösterreich, Linz (1999) pp 21-25.
2 Ernst E. Gombrich, “Kunst und Kunstgelehrten” in: Meditationen über ein Steckenpferd. Über die Wurzeln und der Kunst, Frankfurt/M (1973) p 199.
3 Steven Connor, “Auf schwankenden Boden” in: Samuel Beckett - Bruce Naumann, Kunsthalle Wien (2000) p 83.