The Drunken Self
On the work of Heike Weber
To draw is to appropriate the world. In the drawing, there takes place a kind of short circuit between eye and hand, perception and depiction, inspiration and sketch. Before the drawing becomes a medium sui generis, an artistic discipline in its own right, it has a service function. In it, the painter records the ideas for his or her pictures. Because the drawing carries the picture’s concepts and thus its inner core, its mental substance, it does not take long for it to be appreciated precisely for that reason. Already in the Renaissance it enjoyed great and steadily growing popularity. Subsequently, the drawing emancipated itself increasingly from painting, and became a medium in itself, in which the personal signature of the artist was expressed particularly strongly and concisely. It is in this sense that Heike Weber sees herself as a graphic artist. Which is surprising, when you look at her pictures. For her drawings are not exactly ‘works on paper’ in the traditional sense. Mainly they cover walls and floors, indeed whole rooms. Weber’s interventions are very often in situ pieces. She has a way of relating to the room with her works, and using the room as her starting point, in a way that we are familiar with from sculptors rather than from those working in two dimensions. For Heike Weber the drawing is in this case not a medium for an outside concept, but itself the concept. At the same time her room drawings have such strength and presence that no one who has once seen them will ever forget them. The artist made her name with works in which, using a red or blue permanent marker, she changed rooms in positively breathtaking fashion through drawings. Her strategy is quite simple. She lays out the floor of the room with white PVC, and in this way turns it literally into a white cube. But it does not then become the sober ‘housing’ for her works, but rather itself becomes the picture support, becoming magically transformed. The starting point for the drawings is either a column in the room, a projecting part of the wall, or a landing. These form the motifs by which the artist orients herself in her interventions. Weber’s pen traces their contours. The next line is then oriented to the preceding one, no longer to the motif, and so on. Drawn freehand, the lines get increasingly into motion, and with them the co-ordination of her concept. The angular very soon becomes round, and the straight becomes wavy. And by the end, nothing is as it was in the beginning.
The drunken ship When looking at a floor treated thus by Heike Weber, the beholder has the feeling that what is under his or her feet is no longer lying there silently in the accustomed fashion, but rather that there is a rumbling going on down there, as if a rebellion were brewing. As though the floor had come to life and wanted to break out of the usual inertia and lethargy of its static existence. It’s rather as if the artist were not just giving breath to a lifeless artefact through her intervention, but turning the laws of nature on their head. Such a floor of vibrating, dancing lines, which mockingly pokes fun at the right angles of the architecture, is more than just an impressive exercise in ornament and decor. The beholder who finds herself standing on it, following it with her eyes, will think herself transferred into all possible movement situations: falling and flying and floating. Only one thing seems excluded: standing still, although that’s precisely what she’s doing. Weber’s floors address our minds and senses in equal measure. As beings that seek meaning in everything, we discover captivating parables behind her ornamentation. The artist’s luxuriant mocking lines deny our sense of reality and celebrate that sense of possibility whose beauty Ulrich, the protagonist of Robert Musil’s ‘The Man without Qualities’, never ceased to praise. We could also go back further in time when looking at the intoxicating feast of these lines and think of Friedrich Nietzsche, who saw Man’s original purpose in his Dionysian lust, his yearning for self-abandonment, boundary transgression and ecstasy. Behind all this was the attempt to forget death by exploiting the intensity of life. It is no coincidence that Dionysus, the god of wine, is torn to pieces by his wild female companions, the Maenads. In mythology, Eros and Thanatos are intimately related. But when looking at this intoxicating ornamentation, one might think of Karl Marx too and his pleasant recommendation that casts poetic doubt on what is unsatisfying. One should, he said, play prevailing conditions their own primal melody to get them to dance. That is precisely what Heike Weber does in her drawings, when she reminds the right angle that there are other forms of existence. Someone else dreamt of these in the nineteenth century on the other side of the Rhine: Arthur Rimbaud, who sent his self on voyages as a drunken ship, a ‘bateau ivre’. And us with him.
The freedom of ornament Adolf Loos notoriously opined that ornament was a crime. In his day that was undoubtedly true, because ornamentation followed a wedding-cake aesthetic which hurt the eyes if not the stomach. The Viennese architect opposed this syncretism and mythological pathos with his own unornamented buildings, which celebrated the Bauhaus style avant la lettre. The building with the austere and undecorated façade which he designed for the tailors and outfitters Goldmann & Salatsch in 1910 on Michaelerplatz opposite the imperial Hofburg palace in Vienna so offended Emperor Franz Joseph’s visual sensibilities that His Imperial Majesty is said never again to have looked out over Michaelerplatz from his palace window for the rest of his life. But of course the absence of ornament is also in a sense an ornament. ‘Ornare’ in Latin means ‘to decorate’, and every form of aesthetic design has the goal of overcoming the banality of artefacts as stylishly as possible. Understood thus, the geometric vocabulary of the American exponents of Minimal Art can be interpreted in the sense of an ornamental canon. Here the ornament touches quite fundamentally on abstraction, as the art-historian Markus Brüderlin has shown: in his pioneering publication ‘Ornament und Abstraktion’ he demonstrates the roots of the latter in the former. If we look at the œuvre of Heike Weber, this development can be clearly observed. Her works in Goslar centre on the motif of the carpet. But she empties this motif of concrete identity, using the ornaments of the carpet, while the carpet itself, as an artefact, largely disappears. And even its ornaments are for her merely stimuli for free designs. What turns up as decorative elements in her works are not quotations, but evocations. And they go off in very different directions. On the one hand her ornamentation recalls the carpet motifs of the Turkish kelim, on the other the modules of Minimal Art. While she got to know the former during the several months that she spent in Turkey, the latter are part of her aesthetic socialization. Their joint appearance in the group of works on show in Goslar is, seen thus, also a contribution to intercultural understanding.
Room picture and floor sculpture At the same time the focus is on the subjective adaptation of the motifs by the artist. In her four works, we keep noticing hints of the ideological and narrative potential of the ornament, but they remain extremely discreet. As distant, albeit clearly perceptible, echoes of the history of art and cultures they underlie her works, in which she places the aesthetic confrontation with room and drawing, line and form, in the foreground. The first work encountered by the visitor to the Goslar exhibition is a ‘carpet’ which is laid along the floor of a narrow 30-metre corridor that runs pretty well straight through the upper storey of the exhibition building. In a sense, we have here a carpet on a carpet. The artist developed the structure of the work with the help of a computer, and used the motif of a bush-bean net. The forms, which are reminiscent of rounded rhombi, are constantly being mutually offset and superimposed, while always remaining in the same plane. They recall the sort of puzzle picture where first you see one image, and then another: always the same and yet always different. Weber cut the forms from a piece of yellow carpeting and placed them on top of the existing dark-grey carpet. As a result, the original carpet becomes the background, or rather the ground, of the picture, while the yellow network becomes the protagonist of an impressive room picture or of a floor sculpture, depending on angle of view. In itself the motif she uses is an altogether rational, Cartesian ornament. Clare et distincte . But through the element of offsetting, it becomes diffuse and starts to shimmer. If we look down the corridor, we think we cannot trust our eyes. It is though the floor were expanding sideways, before becoming narrow once more and looking as though it were opened up. The clear and distinct becomes uncertain and multiply ambiguous. The intervention is one of the most attractive and one of the most laconic statements about the state of things in Heike Weber’s œuvre. As though reality had holes, and was porous. If in this work this impression comes across more in the metaphorical sense, in her second carpet work it is quite direct. For the ornamentation and composition of this one, the artist took her inspiration from a Turkish kelim. But instead of weaving her carpet from cloth yarns, Weber has shaped it with black silicone from the DIY store. Like the mythical thread of Ariadne, it consists, apart from the central rosette, of a single line which constantly winds and twists into ever new forms and combinations.
Dance of the forms The silicone makes the carpet sensitive and unsuitable for walking on. It is there in the room exclusively for show. It too is essentially ‘form’ and lies on a pale substrate of grey linoleum . It operates with a similar dialectic of fullness and emptiness as does the carpet in the hallway. Both works might recall a dialogue in Georg Büchner’s play ‘Danton’s Death’, in which the existential uncertainty during the epochal upheaval of the French Revolution is described. When one gentleman extends his hand to another in order to help him across a puddle, the second man expresses his gratitude with the telling words: ‘Yes, the earth is a thin crust. I always think I might fall through where there’s a hole like that. You’ve got to step warily, it might break under you.’ In this perspective Weber’s works and her ornaments develop a dangerous subtext, which leaves the realm of the harmlessly decorative and cosy far behind. This also applies to the artists works on paper, whose compositions draw once again on the geometry, medallions and rosettes of the kelims, while the forms of her ornaments are freely invented. By letting her colours flow freely, the artist also lends unclarity to her motifs. Formed from a confusion of falling, fine web yarns of equal lines, they seems to be behind a veil. One thinks one sees how they melt and dissolve. Once again the world gets out of kilter. Such an impression, albeit with a more cheerful take, also determines Heike Weber’s final work in Goslar. It consists of pieces of red and green carpeting cut into slightly distorted rings. In a joyous terpsichorean confusion they occupy, singly or interlinked, like an unhinged tapestry, the four walls and floor of a room open at the top. They are all of different sizes and their round form conflicts with the right angles of the room, whose orthogonal structure seems to dissolve in the face of the storm of these more organic shapes. Not in the negative sense, however, as though one were losing the ground beneath one’s feet, but in the sense of a positive dismantling of boundaries, which – or at least this is the subjective impression – liberates us from all the constraints of space and time. As beholders in the room, we become part of this sculpture with its baroque abundance of forms and joyous sense of movement. Generously it allows us to participate in a Dionysian