Utopia Never Acknowledges a DIN Standard
PrologueThe finest verbal images used to describe Heike Weber’s work – which is structurally clear but both physically and mentally disturbing – include Matthias Schamp’s suggestion of a flying carpet.1 Admittedly, it may work so well because they were artists-in-residence together on fellowships to Istanbul. In 2006/07, Heike Weber not only bought masses of the mini-carpets offered to tourists in the bazars there, but also progressed boldly to drawings of them made with lacquer paints and acrylics on canvas and paper, and even more significantly to floor works consisting of silicon. The artist is not concerned, of course, with the function of the carpet as a useful or decorative accessory in a room or with rehabilitating the long trivialised – in all kinds of bourgeois rug – ornaments from the 1001 Nights. And yet, looking at her “kilims” we are pleasantly reminded of all those wonderful variations on extraordinary oriental tales. Such spontaneous responses to the transformation of materials and ‘images’ into a floating, falling, dancing or indeed flying cosmos are what lead our notions of movement and standstill in space beyond the first fleeting reactions of ecstatic subjects. A sober look at the rather ‘dry’ facts may succeed, nevertheless, in filtering out the autonomous artistic strategies in this oeuvre that progresses with minimalist calculation and passionate radicalism, ensnaring our perception in a complex universe of spiritual and sensual reflections right up to the present day.
Facts in the Rear-View Mirror and Possible Routes for PerceptionIn 1995 she produced one of her first spatial works. In the stairwell of a blockhouse-style bunker dating from the Second World War, Heike Weber arranged a large number of ‘blond’ hair nets, each 30 x 21 cm, in series to fill an overall area of 322 x 205 cm. If the material were not loaded due to its function as a bourgeois hair accessory and the setting no less charged with significance, we might have been inclined to regard the ‘conquest’ of the wall by the material, which reveals no more than itself, as no more than a radical successor to Minimalism. But existential undertones broken with subtle humour inevitably become mixed up with this formally strict presentation because of the way that the hair nets, like wire netting on mountain passes, seem to protect the weathered walls from decay, or rather to screen those who pass by from falling ‘rocks’. Doris Krystof’s memory of her first enounter with the work provides a lively pre-taste of much that is to come. “I saw the hair nets on the white walls of the studio... Or rather, I could just about see them. Or perhaps I only saw the shadow of the flimsy netting. It is difficult to say what we really see. The nets themselves are more of a manifestation, like a piece of fluff dancing in front of your pupils.”2 Three years later in a video, the kind of net bag for vegetables one finds in the shops throbbed just as though it had indeed been invited to dance. In 1996, in the cool ‘white cube’ of Galerie Schweins, a white version strung up on all sides challenged the perception, forcing the eye to skate endlessly to and fro, attempting to grasp the work’s minimal presence in front of the white wall. At this point at the latest, it becomes clear that the artist is not concerned with mounting works on the wall or in space, whereby her more or less unusual materials will lead to surprise at best. What is presaged here is a de-limitation – less of the room itself (it will not actually be touched) and more of the subject’s self-perception within the space and his relationship to it. From now on, the line – relevant as an elementary module for net structures – and its essential function at the interface of emptiness and abundance will drive the development of the work, whether on flat surfaces or in space, towards increasingly complex constellations of form, material and content. In 1997, ‘Pelikan’ followed in Stefan Rasche’s gallery: using blue ink and white ink eraser. Actually curving on some occasions and only suggesting curves on others, parallel lines stream across the walls smoothed with plaster rendering as if the entire ocean had lost its way on the vertical plane. The reference to a bird at home in the water seems logical, until the traditional ink manufacturer reclaims its place. At best, a process that appears pointless to the normal consumer – first spreading the quality ink across the whole surface area and subsequently ‘erasing’ almost half of it with such enthusiasm, leaving the ‘rest’ to the light that will fade it over time – will become anchored only in the subconscious. At this time we are still standing – in customary manner – face to face with the work. Then, in 1998, there came the conquest of space from the ground up, as was to be expected. A photo shows "Quirl /Whisk" on the beach at Ahrenshoop. As if the kitchen utensil of the same name was captive in the middle of a round bowl, waving lines drawn with red permanent marker on PVC spread in circles from the centre towards the rim. Whatever imagination of flowers, whirlpools or precious rosettes is ‘whisked up’ in our subjective perceptions, the gravity-dependent tides will flood over them like the linear vortex in this – seen objectively – static outlined object. In a counter move, the polarity between the artificial pattern of lines and the natural sequence of waves creates those very dynamics that point beyond the factual, which can be objectified as the free play of lines in space and time. Still in the same year, a red wave washed fiercely over a room in Villa Zanders, dating from the Gründerzeit, in which the municipal gallery of Bergisch-Gladbach resides. Not even the double wing doors could resist this flood wave entitled, with quiet irony, “salon piece”. On the contrary. Their reflecting ‘inlets’ drove us to veritable perceptual turbulences. And this is certainly true of the ultimately decisive step taken in 1998 – into the ‘long shot’: when the minimalist ‘white cube’ mutated into a “Whirlpool”. This time, as in “Stage for the Opera” as early as 1996, blue permanent marker came into play. However, the function accredited to the tool – the accentuation by marking of important or even central items – went under with glory in this all-over of towering and falling, flattening ‘waves’, which now swept up ferociously from the floor and over the walls. And the faith – essential to ‘believers’ – in a binding centre of existence was submerged with it. In 2000, in “room 104”, we find the first staging to cross the boundary between traditional and ‘new’ media. As if someone had forgotten to switch it off and take it home with him, there is a monitor on the floor of a completely emptied hotel room in Nijmegen in the Netherlands. A jellyfish illuminated from within bobs in the picture, motionless, as if compelled to play dead to escape a grid of black lines extending across the floor and walls. What an inspiring anticipation of the many subsequent video loops of time-based ‘events’ – among them the downhill skiing in “White out”, 2000, recorded simply and precisely from the body’s perspective, the spinning and falling “Ice Prince” in 2004, and the gradually melting snowman in “Black out”, 2005. In our pre-representational perception, sometimes dramatically heightened movements trigger afterimages of great narratives such as the elementary duel between dynamism and standstill, or appearing and disappearing in time and space with the same intensity as the artist’s grid networks, wave movements, and orbits in architectonic space. This gushing fount of plenty is followed by a vibrant experiment in being and the emptiness in-between. In the beginning was the silhouette cut from PVC, “Aquaplaning” 2000, shown at Stefan Rasch’s gallery, as well as the paper work “Water”, made at the same time. They were followed in 2011 by, among others, the silhouette cuts entitled “scrub” at Rasche Ripken in Berlin, and paper cuts ‘layered’ by means of painterly interventions in their inner structure to produce magical natural spaces in the exhibitions “Cut” and “Cosmos”, both in 2013. But the revival of a technique popular with 19th century artists and artisans for this and all her subsequent spatial works and drawings implies more than a technical addition to the production process, and also more than an extension of the raw materials to prove relevant in future. For what the artist – also starting in 2000 – expects from washing line and carpet, from silicon after 2007, and from silvery shining footfall sound installation and the stickytape we are all familiar with as packaging material after 2013 – to name only the most striking – leads our subjective sensory perception through the most delightful media and architectonic turbulence into complex reflections on fullness and emptiness, and on presence and absence in physical as well as imagined space. Mountain silhouettes made from red washing line pierced by nails – “white out”, 2000, and “Bryce 2”, 2001; as from 2003, flying or falling figures made from window paints on pins, whether entitled “Hermengild”, “Cupid & Psyche” or “Icarus” – play, with elation but also tongue in cheek, with an experience of fathomlessness always concentrated into dizzying ‘images’. But above all, their reciprocally defining art-immanent aspects of space and material, content, medium and form make these images into a wonderfully clear statement on one of the fundamental qualities of space: its existence as a state between Yves Klein’s ‘spirituality’ of emptiness3 and the radical objectification of ‘primary structures’ by the Minimalists. An exhibition in Galerie Schweins in 2003 was entitled “My Dream of Flying”. On the floor we find the first version of a cut-out work made from carpeting with the cryptic title “Runner”. In the completely empty neighbouring room an outline drawing of the Western Gothic martyr “Hermengild” floats on the wall. If materials could defend themselves, this high-quality fitted carpeting would surely submit a complaint against shameless misapplication of its original destiny to conceal everything beneath it. And only to serve as a minimalist grid-like structure for which the enlarged reproduction of a banal bush-bean net, of all things, provided the model. Is it not delightful to note that, in future, materials whose disappearance is longed for by every specialist will be allowed to display their unexpected beauty with every conceivable irritating emphasis – not least for their producers? First of all there is silicon, primarily known as a filler. As from 2007 the artist ‘casts’ it into forms, whose ostentatiously fragile appearance seduces our senses and triggers afterimages in our perception that defy the rational like flying carpets in infinite space. In her linear overextension of this most banal – due to its everyday availability – of materials into a ‘thread’ for objects that, as carpets and wall tapestries, belong to the great cultural fruits of the Orient due to their ingenious weaving technique, the artist now pulls out all the stops of physical and intellectual transformation of the architectural space in a perceptual realm oscillating between minimalist reduction and Baroque opulence.4 Whether in a palace chapel immersed in the spirit of the Baroque at the MMK in Carinthia, 2012, or in the more contemplative Basilica S. Francesco in Arezzo, before the eyes of the revered Piero della Francesca, in 2013, whether in the rough space of Kunsthalle Darmstadt, on a space-consuming blue podium in 2012, or as an all-over line-up of all the white versions produced to date in Ludwigshafen, 2014: the incredibly peaceful “kilims” fill and energise these spaces like immense afterimages of our insatiable dreams of flying. Those with even a slight familiarity with Weber’s artistic laboratory will not be surprised, surely, when other materials from the depots of hobby stores and further consumer delights find an irritatingly ‘proper’ place in the line-up of materials occasionally sounded out simultaneously and by comparison – to date they include glass balls, lipsticks, self-adhesive labels and lighting tubes. Experiencing them as no less familiar but nonetheless astonishing, we note that her occupations of space, undermining every certainty of physical and psychological stability, are heightened still more into tense tightrope acts when the artist is confronted by extremely intractable spatial situations. For “Cut” at the Nord LB Gallery in Hanover, 2013, for instance. Here it was necessary to give something like a face or character to a space that reflects the superficial transparency of foyers and stairwells in industrial imperiums rather than suggesting a self-contained zone for concentrated perception of art. And she did so once again by using the most ordinary of everyday materials: honeycombs cut from white PVC ornamented the long tedious, commonplace parquet flooring with which e.g. banks everywhere try to lend a veneer of nobility to their premises. As if her aim was to hold up a mirror to the floor which was overwhelming our perceptions, the honeycombs sweep up onto the vertical lines of a cube, beside which some rather weak-looking stairs head up to one of the customary gallery balconies, and from there into the closed administration sector. The fact that only empty spaces mutate into ornament on both the horizontal and the vertical planes probably permeates our awareness as slowly as the fact that here, for the first time, transparent sticky tape specially printed with black dots is employed to prescribe a rhythm on the massive cube. Which is why the echo in the floor pattern here in this place – more like a corridor than a space to linger – creates a pull that tests, even triumphantly overcomes all our certainties about the space, like motorways curving above and below each other at busy road junctions. Measured against this staging, the artist’s presentation in the Municipal Gallery Borbeck Castle in Essen seems like a self-contained or even unpretentious island for a poetic balancing of tension. Due to its striking emptiness, we soon think we have grasped this “cosmos” of well-nigh modest aspect. But then, as if someone had covered the blank floor with mercurial veins, the all too hasty visitor is stopped by an interlocking system of silvery gleaming loops based on incomprehensible rules. If the cut-out silhouette with its vegetative patterns did not attract us from a distance, we might hesitate to step onto this floor that shimmers so challengingly in the light. We have scarcely overcome our inhibitions when our uncertain feet lead us, step by step, with their ambivalent sensory experience of constant change from hard to soft, to the rational mind addressed only gently as yet. Those who know anything about raw materials know that the footfall insulation used here was never invented as a ‘glittering’ ornament for once magnificent domiciles in palace gardens, any more than slimy silicon was intended for Weber’s delicate “kilims”. This material bought by the metre owes its right to existence to an all-over but above all invisible use in balancing out the tensions under parquet, tiles or other floor coverings that tend to crack – and most certainly not to the creation of such ambivalent conditions between fine vitality and provocative severity for the eyes, feet, and finally for our perceptive system as it oscillates between emotion, fascination and practical knowledge. The artist has brought this fitted floor covering destined to disappear back to the surface. And like the fine carpeting mauled with equal absurdity this – not quite so fine – material also discloses a beauty we find confusing.
But what has actually been said?Is it not possible that the reciprocal effects between the space we are able to measure objectively and the one we experience subjectively is more decisively dependent on the deliberate use of materials in each case and the no less deliberate process than is suggested by a simple naming? In Weber’s spaces it is easy to list established cultural techniques as well as more everyday abilities: drawing lines, transferring geometric patterns to flat surfaces, generating nets and lines, spraying, cutting out and sticking. In other words, processes in which the materials, once liberated from their dismal everyday manifestations, can play a cryptic game with the roles formerly dictated to them by man as all-over floor coverings, unimaginative window decor, boring washing lines, sticky packaging tape, or disdainful insulation material. Which means that the rational mind finds itself on a perceptual roundabout both highly sensual and imaginative, its strange or even absurd caprioles transforming factual standstill into spiritual motion. “The experience of space is processed by a completely different part of the brain to that processing images, time, history,” according to Adrian Kreye on the “Pioneering achievement of Wim Wender’s 3-D film about Pina Bausch”.5 Kreye refers to a thesis put forward by François Garnier, pioneer of computer graphics and a teacher at the acclaimed Ecole des Arts Graphiques: Garnier said that the basic mistake made by almost all directors was to use 3-D in film not as a new medium but as an “effect”. “But it is not our cognitive abilities, it is our basal ganglia that are responsible for experiencing space, meaning that knowledge of the effects leads to a relief at best, but not to the conquest of space.”6 What Wenders’s film succeeds in doing, as an intuitive experience of space, can be transferred easily to Weber’s spatial works. “One quickly thinks it is imagination, an irritation of the retina, that everything is just in the mind. In this case, however, it is not so... It seduces but releases us again... Seeing the flickering of the fine grids, one feels one’s sense of sight becoming physical,” according to Doris Krystof in a response concentrating her sensory and intellectual perceptions of the “Hair Netting” viewed in Heike Weber’s studio in 1995.7 Although the subsequent works assert their material presence in space more offensively, it is true that Weber pretends nothing. She convinces us by taking her spaces – even the most difficult – just as seriously, with their generally predictable but in many cases also surprising laws of their own, as the relevant active processes within each particular space. Her space is no abstract space but a physical ‘subject’ with different characteristics each time; some overwhelming and some disturbing. Surely, therefore, it is no secondary observation that the artistic act within a space is always one together with the space, whose qualities – inclusive of error – influence the artistic decision-making process decisively. The resulting deviations from the procedure adopted and maintained in principle, which heighten our sensual perception, have nothing whatsoever to do with coquetry or cheap showmanship. What counts here is the calculable nature but also the astonishing duality of cause and effect in the butterfly effect derived from chaos theory. In 1972 Edward N. Lorenz concentrated its principles in the title of his lecture on the scientific possibilities of precise weather forecasting in the delightfully graphic question: “Does the Flap of a Butterfly's Wings in Brazil Set off a Tornado in Texas?” 8 But what is it that makes Heike Weber‘s spaces so different, so appealing? What goes beyond things that have been tried and tested elsewhere and never simply plagiarised by the artist – if not the unobtrusive and yet decisive tension between assimilation and deviation, between originality and reinterpretation, between balance and turbulence in the physical and mental spaces of art and everyday life? No individual plagued by a fear of heights can be unfamiliar with that strangely contradictory state somewhere between dizziness and fathomlessness which even images of imposing mountain ranges may trigger? Equally familiar is the constant overuse – in our society addicted to decor – of striped patterns in the tradition of Op Art, and even more so, perhaps, of their kinetic successors in colour and light design. Every disco still uses a sensationally easy-to-make ball to flood its space with geometric patterns and excite the full spectrum of its visitors’ physical senses. How much more excitement is triggered, even by a brief look at Mondrian’s “Broadway Boogie Woogie” paintings from the early 40s on the one hand, or Yves Klein’s “Vide” from 1958 on the other, gauging the tense relationship of fullness and void that grants a tangible intensity to this work, while nonetheless delineating the measurable. Naturally, any attempt to follow this check-list of facts with a set of instructions written by the author for intuitive or sensual perception of the interplay of material, movement and space would be doomed to failure. Brain research in the distant future may succeed where we have so far failed. It is still each visitor’s personal reactions to the materials – useful in everyday life or banal at best, if not doomed to extinction – which create the incalculable state in Heike Weber’s transformations, where irritation and ecstasy are capable of turning quite seamlessly into a sense of quiet pleasure. Heike Weber’s experiences with the sponsors of her materials are less banal than they may seem in the context of customary art discourse. In 2003, when the artist gave the title “Dream of Flying” to the first appearance of carpeting ‘maltreated’ with empty spaces, the abovementioned “Runner”, in conjunction with “Hermengild”, the atmosphere in the space was still largely peaceful by comparison to the fierce turbulence of the “Multiversum” in 2010/11, when only a few overlapping rings of the ‘Flying Carpet’ still remained at a height of 12 metres in Marta Herford. After initial horror over the ‘misuse’ of their goods, what suddenly enraptured the producers – whose calculations are generally financial – of this ‘raw material’ invented to cover large floor areas was presumably the ‘incalculable’ – at least from their point of view – vitality of the interplay between a clearly chemically and functionally defined material and the architecturally defined space. It is not known whether the producers of the footfall insulation transformed into “meandering rivulets”9 in Essen enjoyed this metamorphosis to the same extent. What we do know is that the liberation of the materials from their normative everyday usage lent them a ‘brilliance’ that in turn supplements all knowledge of the rationally measurable with a subjectively sensual and emotional perception of movement in space. After brief reference to titles such as “Dream”, “Utopia”, “Cupid & Psyche”, “Vertigo”, “Cosmos” and “Multiversum”, names of mythical icons and auratically charged places at odds with Weber’s carefully calculated processes, which she occasionally uses several times or for works with different materials, I would like to accentuate her complex play with “great emotions”10 in two cases that prove particularly informative here. In 2004 her exhibition in Galerie Rasche in Münster was entitled “Happiness”. A common neon light tube ‘writes’ this great emotion as an unmistakeable word on the wall, while – as a consequence of rigorous cut-outs – the happiness of the carpet with the same title, reduced to an incomprehensible tangle of lines, subdues the floorspace with ease. In the very same year, Heike Weber called another exhibition “Happiness”: in the stairwell of the Kunstfonds, the pace was set by the abovementioned work of the same name, which then led me – due to a short deadline and the prescribed length of my text – to a number of ‘questionable’ speculations. “Are washing lines happy to escape the everyday torture of clothes pegs and draw the outline of a mountain range sinking into the evening sun with the aid of a hundred nails? How about imagining happy carpets, which – rejecting the comfort of floor covering – throw their users into a state of confusion? And what if tube lighting not only radiated happiness but also spelt it out? Surely we all remember our childish joy when cutting patterned mats from paper, bringers of happiness to adults? True, they seldom echoed the turbulent rhythms which lead us to recall the dizzying loops danced by skaters on shimmering ice rinks or the childish pleasure of disturbing neat circles in the water by throwing in more stones.” In 2004 I ended these rather more spontaneous than fundamental reflections by sighing in a highly unscientific way: “Oh, DIN standard, do stay a while, you are so beautiful.”11 In 2010, the work of standardisation had reached 32,454 individual entries in Germany alone. Meanwhile, its insights from science, technology and experience – abstracted into different letters and numbers internationally – are condensed into a grid whose ‘decor’ the layman finds strangely seductive, just like the innumerable ornaments between figuration and abstraction that our everyday life drums up all over the world.
EpilogueWhen Yves Klein made his bold “Leap into the Void” in 1958 and tried to document it with those photos that have fascinated us to the present day, he encountered predominant mockery, even among his colleagues. But he did not let anyone steal his “utopia”. The Minimalists did not succeed, either, in protecting their work from the impulses of the basal ganglia that extend but also occasionally switch off the brain’s cognitive abilities. They are what charge the relations between the author or the viewer and the work in physical space with the energies which had immunised Yves Klein against all rationally-based proof of his failure in face of material reality. Heike Weber’s carpets do not fly, either; not the cut-outs that have progressed from the floor to the wall, and most certainly not the ones made of white silicon, whose precious ‘lightness’ is due only to the glistening of the abstract pattern of lines from the mastic silicon gun. The DIN standard was a useful ‘baby’ of enlightenment; a generally voluntary, occasionally state-prescibed set of regulations that primarily serves those interests oriented on effectiveness and thus, from the vantage point of industry, presumes the greatest possible agreement between producers and consumers. But in “Multiversum” the straightforward logic of progress is no longer viable. And in “Utopia”, 2007, there is no need for a DIN standard but only for a simple light bulb in the black cubic space to catapult the lines of permanent marker extending all over the floor, walls and ceiling from standstill and the darkness of Plato’s cave into a universe of dancing waves and mountains. We can happily relegate to the realm of innocent imagination the answer to my question whether the tube lighting, washing lines, carpets and all the other ‘raw materials’ imprisoned in useful but banal everyday norms, such as footfall insulation, sticky tape and others we may presume will follow in Heike Weber’s “Multiversum” are or will be happier after reinforcement from the fairy-tale “kelims”. The raw materials will not escape the regulations of everyday norms. And when they have fulfilled their duty, in the art world the worst case scenario will see them end up like the flying and falling mythical figures in physical space, the transparent tape decorated with dots in “Cut”, and the snowmen in the video “Black out”: as a sticky pile of window paints, a tangled mass of dirty sticky tape – or as a puddle of water. Just as Heike Weber makes the snowman gradually melt again in “Cosmos”, 2013, inside a protective space that is not immediately visible, the humorous enigmatic quality of her work takes our encounter with insulation material concretised in silvery gleaming rivulets into a strange, joyful realm of poetic ambiguity.12 In the long term, at best “happiness” will occur when perception itself risks the leap into those voids of our awareness where the rational mind, itself imprisoned by DIN standards, briefly loses control over the innumerable fantasies of ‘flying carpets’ in the infinite universe. “While my eyes ride roller-coaster, wings are lent to the flight of my imagination”, as Matthias Schamp described his state when first encountering a silicon carpet by his fellow artist.13 In 2012 Heike Weber ‘left’ a ‘globe’ in the rather narrow stairwell of the tower at Berlin/Brandenburg Airport, which had been lent wings by the weightlessness of washing lines fixed between nails and the suspense of slipping poles. A short time later, the spectacular major airport failed to open because a DIN standard had not been met. We ask ourselves what would happen if the rational mind, at the moment when it is confronted by its own limitations, succeeded just once in riding roller-coaster through the “cosmos” of this expanding and re-merging “Multiversum”? One could imagine that as a moment of “great emotion”. Happiness – according to my still unverified opinion – is an outcome of unprotected flights of fancy into the turbulent cosmos of (her) art’s beauty. And – fortunately – this is always, and not only in art, known as a “utopia”.
1 Matthias Schamp, Der Flug auf dem Teppich, in: kilims a la turca, Lehmbruck Museum, 2009
2 Doris Krystof, gerade noch, in: Maikäfer flieg, Cologne 1995, p. 89
3 Heike Weber made a very obvious reference to Klein’s “Leap into the Void” with her mural work “Yves”, 2008, in the Galerie Martina Detterer, Frankfurt.
4 On this, see Martin Engler, “Barocke Welten und weiße Zellen”, in: Heike Weber, Barocco, Museum Morsbroich, 2004
5 Süddeutsche Zeitung, feature pages, 28.2.2012, p. 11
6 Human beings owe their capacity for spontaneity, affect, anticipation etc. to the basal ganglia situated below the cerebral cortex, which heighten but may occasionally also switch off the brain’s cognitive powers.
7 Doris Krystof, ibid.
8 Edward N. Lorenz, Predictability: Does the Flap of a Butterfly's Wings in Brazil set off a Tornado in Texas?,1972
9 Sabine Elsa Müller, “Unter dem Pflaster liegt der Strand, immer noch”, in: Cosmos, Essen, 2013
10 10 In a work of the same name dating from 2005, a light tube illuminated these same “great emotions” as the condensate of all our existential efforts to escape the banality of everyday life.
11 Heike Weber, Glück / Happiness, Stiftung Kunstfonds, Bonn 2004
12 On the various possible interpretations, cf. Sabine Elsa Müller, ibid.
13 Matthias Schamp, ibid.