David Komary: On volumes of double absence

The evocation of space in Elisabeth Grübl’s Studio series

Instead of possessing structure as an absolute given, fixed for all time, space can only achieve structure through the general context and meanings within which it comes into being (…) Thus aesthetic space (…) epitomises different formal possibilities, within each of which a new objective horizon opens up. 
Ernst Cassirer
The temporary sculptural arrangements that Elisabeth Grübl portrays in the photo series Studio, are made up of objects that she found in the studios of other artists. In the photographs Studio #10-#16 – on which the following reflections are focused – she condenses all of the objects taken from each ‘borrowed’ studio into a strict cubical order. Furniture, equipment, but also art works – for example wrapped-up paintings – are stacked into a pile that is mostly placed in the centre of the studio space. These studio objects, deprived of all function, become the variables of sculptural arrangement. The cube forms the fundamental spatial constant in this aesthetic process, however, the specific composition of objects within this meta-form does not seem to be of as much interest as does, put simply, its radical form of compression. In this way, a spatial situation emerges that borders on the absurd: exceptional circumstances are created in each studio by re-determining the typology of space. 
The artist works within a brief period of time, and relatively few observers see the sculpture in situ as it is dismantled after a few days and the converted studio returned to its original state. An aesthetic of absence is already implicated in the emergence of the spatial sculpture: the stacks that the artist creates appear as massive symbols of future absence.
At first sight, Grübl’s Studio series is about the spatial presence of these largely monolithic structures. However, the viewer is confronted in numerous ways – semantically, phenomenonologically, and media-ontologically – with figures of absence. On the one hand, the dysfunctional cluster of studio objects in the middle of the room forms a space that is emptied of semantic meaning. On the other hand, the surrounding free space – the architectonic ‘container’ – is laid bare.  Not least, the medial status of the sculptures in relation to their photographic representation proves to be a paradox, and allows for several, at times contradictory, interpretations. The ambiguity of fullness and emptiness is particularly evident in the pictorial representation of the sculptural arrangements: the medium of photography forms a link between presence and absence.  In this way, the picture does not represent the elapsed or the absent.  Instead, it serves as a medium that establishes the communication between the ‘there’ and the ‘not there’, and makes the complex relationship between fullness and emptiness in Grübl’s works into an integral part of the observational dispositif.
Although the cubic stack in the studio space gives an impression of bulk, at the same time the sculpture strikes us as being somehow constrained. Compressed into a tightly restricted space, the objects appear to make themselves as small as possible in comparison to their original distribution in the studio. Spatial features of the studio withdraw into themselves, as it were, limiting themselves to a confined space and thereby allowing a second ‘empty’ space to become visible. If we direct our focus away from the centre-point of the picture – the sculpture – and towards the newly exposed space, a complex field of image-spatial inversion figures and paradoxes becomes legible. How can the status of this empty space be described? Can a figure-ground relationship be referred to at all? Is this space background and environs, i.e. subordinate to the conspicuous sculptural event, or does it refer to a kind of meta-space, a space in the sense of an abstract, a priori dimension that is independent of the observer’s presence? Grübl’s works do not give any definitive answer to this question.  Instead, viewers are confronted with the simultaneity of differing concepts of space, at times divergent and irreconcilable. They are forced to rely on their own gaze and are made conscious of their own ways of perceiving and imagining space.
The dispositif of a central perspective, photography and container space
Grübl’s handling of space is often paradoxical. It seems that the artist – whose aesthetic approach is essentially that of a sculptress – is actually working against her own medium. The phenomenological experience of certain works, the ability to enter the room, is made difficult, if not impossible. Grübl limits the variability of standpoint, and in so doing limits the development of divergent viewpoints. Thus, 9000 Hz in the Vienna Secession (1998) could only be viewed from a point outside the spatial installation. Even though viewing from the inside was theoretically possible, access was laborious and therefore improbable. Visitors to the exhibition saw the installation framed by a doorway and thus transformed into an icon.   
In the Studio series, an even more explicit turn to the pictorial can be discerned. Viewers find themselves confronted with photographs in which a clear observational standpoint recurs: frontal shots impose an explicit point of view, centring the gaze. The photographic ‘framing’ or dispositif comes very close to adopting a centralised perspective, while simultaneously acting as a generative, spatially constitutive element. The theme is not spatial volume’s physical presence – the ‘what’ of our perception – but rather the ‘how’, which has been determined by the dispositif of observation. Whether virtually, vis-a-vis the sculpture in space, or photographic-imaginary as in the Studio series, the personal standpoint is revealed as a substantial constituent of our concept of space.
Grübl’s works consistently return to forms of organisational reduction and geometrics. On first sight, the cube seems to ensure a certain spatial order, whether in the figuration of the stacked atelier objects or as a reference to Euclidean tri-axiality and the centralised perspective of figurative geometry. However, this moment of presumed certainty at the level of aesthetic reception is pitted against a conceptual dimension that is not immediately perceptible in the visual sense.  Compared with Grübl’s creative process  - the arranging, stacking and layering of objects, the entire register of spatial manipulations necessary to the genesis of this paradoxical temporal construction - the abstract cubical (meta-)form  constitutes a deconstructive and dissociative element. Alongside the geometric form, the disintegration and corrosion of the original organisational structure and the semantic shift that this causes in the studio move to the foreground. The constructive process of the cubic structure is therefore based on the dialectical relation between construction and deconstruction, centring and de-centring.
The line as a marker of double absence
The motif of de-materialisation, of spatially evocative absences can already be found in Grübl’s works from the 1990s. In these sculptures the artist uses a few orthogonally spanned filaments to outline a cubic room within a room. The viewer begins almost unintentionally to ‘fill in’ the outlines with imaginary transparent surfaces (for example, glass surfaces). The same applies to the photograph Without title/Ostia (2007), which shows the figuration of a lineal spatial volume in the form of a tubular steel skeleton bordering a sports field. Even though the lineal geometric form in this case is ‘found footage’ rather than having been personally constructed and installed as in other early works, the principle remains the same. Here again, the viewer’s cognitive apparatus fills in the orthogonal linear framework with transparent surfaces. If the line, in a graphic-theoretical sense, delineates that which it represents through omission, absence of surface and colour, then Grübl reveals a double absence with this reference to an invisible, transparent and imaginary presence. Here the line functions not so much as a spatial border - a separation of inner from outer - but more as a medium between material and immaterial, visible and imaginary. 
The cubic, linearly constructed space within a space is not only a sign of the iconic similarity between Without title/Ostia and Grübl’s earlier works, it is also a fundamental intellectual figure of the Studio series, although the latter deals with cubic volumes without showing linear structures. One could maintain that the respective reordering of the studio objects is preceded by the idea of an imaginary cube, the anticipation of a container, which the artist successively proceeds to fill with objects.  The photographically documented stacking seems, in this inverted interpretation, not so much a trace of former presence as an evocation of an imaginary, transparent, cubic form. In this sense, the images of the Studio series show volumes of double absence, hidden spatial figures that become ‘observable’ in a realm beyond the visible.
Spaces of aesthetic possibility
Grübl’s Studio series ‘shows’ ontologically questionable volumes, whose status is continually modified by the process of perception, in the inter-medial interplay between sculpture and photography. Beyond the idea of a supposedly documentary reproduction, but also beyond the conception of an ultimately static tri-axial container space, the spatial becomes legible as a ‘circumstance’ situated between perception, imagination and reflection. Grübl holds up for consideration the reciprocal interrelation between emptiness and fullness, abstraction and quantification, in order to destabilise presumed perceptual certainties and canonised concepts of space. A definitive point of view seems ultimately impossible. However, the Studio series does not aim at a diagnostic, system-reflective spatial analysis, nor does it favour the phenomenological and kinaesthetic dimension of the spatial-sculptural situations. Instead, Grübl’s cubic stacks hold different versions of space in a balance. The perceived space in its potential polymorphism becomes legible as a place of aesthetic possibility, the observer as a ‘space creator’ who becomes aware of his own perceptive-projective activity. As a consequence, spatial perception and spatial conception prove to be tangible moments of ‘worldmaking’ for the observer.