Patricia Grzonka: Image, Realties. Elisabeth Grübls Text Works
Text Objects
Elisabeth Grübl has realised around ten text objects until now during her artistic career. They all follow the same principle and yet are so different. They are mostly word pairs or word sequences written in capitals that denote a type of opposition: before_after, nowhere_everywhere, it is_it is not, absence_presence, ever_never, on the one side_on the other side, socialism_capitalism. The letters of these words are laser cut 26 centimetres high from MDF boards and painted with acrylic paint. They are mounted directly on the wall in a very precise process and assembled together into a compacted object that allows the words to still appear legible, but also defamiliarizes them at the same time. It is only through this defamiliarization that a thought process can begin for viewers, over the course of which the written, the denoted and the image-manifesting superimpose.
The object after_before (2020), for example, is arranged so that we might think that the word before forms the basis and reverse of the word after. Grübl’s arrangement, therefore, does not contradict the statement made but seems to confirm the statement in the performative act. The artist has found a visualisation – an “image” –­­­­
in this work, which supports the word statement in the greatest possible compaction. We follow the single letters and think up a theory why the last E of before stands out after the R of after.
Word pairs also function in a similar way, such as nowhere_everywhere, ever_never oder absence_presence, which lead to different typefaces as a result of different word lengths, yet remain in a uniform semantic lexical field. Totally different, for example, from socialism_capitalism (2019). Here one is shown two sides of the coin simultaneously, and it seems to be about the whole, about nothing less than political ideologies. As lettering, this work is more complex than the adjective pairs, evoking redundancy through the pairing of single letters. socialism_capitalism seems mysterious and indecipherable, a foreign language? But which?
Elisabeth Grübl’s text objects originate from a fascination with terms and their meanings, placing them in spatial disposition. And so her works are generally characterized by a strong spatial reference, above all in the series studio #, compactions of studios (from 2008), with which she forms a new relation between questions pertaining to the conception of space, the recognizability of single studio objects as well as the evocation of new constellations of meaning. In 2006 in the Westbahnstraße she brought another fascination for opposites – or that which we consider to be such – to an installation in a public space together with Sabine Heine – or rather, in this case, it was in a private space at the interface with the public one. A work that, besides a strongly consumer critical aspect, encompasses above all a gender conscious one. be a good girl is the name of a Viennese hairdresser’s on the Westbahnstraße, whose name is displayed on the glass façade of the salon in big letters. In an unannounced (and therefore unauthorised) intervention, the artist swapped one word in what was literally a covert operation into be a bad girl. The statement, compacted in the text objects by condensing a pair of opposites, was turned into its opposite here by replacing a whole word. The new spacing of the letters had to be worked out in advance, and so the perfect simulation of the contrary evocation almost borders on magic.
The question of how language produces meaning and how much this is bound to our perception lies in the origin of a linguistic model of semantics. Through the decoupling of signified and signifier, Ferdinand de Saussure laid the foundation in the 1910’s upon which not only modern linguistics but also language-based avant-garde art could later develop. However, already in the late 19th century, the French poet Stéphane Mallarmé, based on the postulate of a phonetically and semantically autonomous language alongside a critique of the commodification of emerging mass culture, developed an aesthetic model for the conceptualization of autonomy and for the radical reorientation that led to the abstraction program of the classical avant-gardes.
To view language and texts as an artistic sphere of their own, which, although they coincide with the meaning of the words in the narrower sense, at the same time also persist in pure “self-reference”, i.e. self-referentiality1, and derive a new meaning from it, will subsequently influence all language-based art movements of the 20th century: from Dadaism to the directness of concrete poetry up to the conceptual word sequences of the neo-avant-gardes of the 1960s and 70s. In Austria, it was initially the members of the Vienna Group – above all Friedrich Achleitner, H.C. Artmann, Konrad Bayer and Gerhard Rühm – who explored the meaning potential of spoken language, or rather its sign language. In Switzerland, on the other hand, concrete poetry became the label for an extremely reduced approach to the letter and the word that could not be further differentiated.
Photographic Works
Deconstructing text into its component parts in language is one side of “language art”. However, the other is to regard the word, so to speak, as an image. The blank space between meaning and image, which has led a semiologically oriented art since René Magritte (“Ceci n’est pas une pipe”) and Marcel Broodthaers to the border between the “sayable” and the “visible” time and again, is the space for the aesthetic project in late modernism par excellence. The “rift” between reality, between linguistic and visual meaning, between signifier and signified can never be closed, as Sabeth Buchmann and Rainer Bellenbaum maintained in their catalogue contribution from 2010 to the exhibition “Riss/Lücke/Scharnier A” curated by Heinrich Dunst.2 While the dominance of the linguistic sign following Roland Barthes since the 1960’s was still responsible for the fact that many European and US- American conceptual artists dedicated themselves to this project, a clear, new trend was heralded from the 1980’s onwards with the Pictorial Turn proclaimed by the art historian W.J.T. Mitchell.3 And with this bond of text, word, and letters to the image, we finally come to a number of Austrian artists – not just these naturally4 –, who started to explore the visual possibilities of texts at precisely that time: Heimo Zobernig, Gerwald Rockenschaub and Heinrich Dunst.
With her text-based works, Elisabeth Grübl is not only one of the few artists who have settled in this field of visual representation. She has also simultaneously opened up a new field of questioning the reality of images. In a series of photographic works created since 2010, the series of text objects is continued insofar as the same word sequences are mounted in photographs of urban landscapes. Mostly they are individual, striking yet unspecific buildings that prompt Grübl to a virtual intervention: sparse, villa-like concrete architecture at a street intersection in Havana, for example, or a typical building in pretentious Stalin Baroque in Warsaw. In these photographs, often laboriously produced with several cameras or in several takes, Grübl places her word sequences at appropriate points like a kind of advertisement on fictitious advertising boards, billboards or street signs. absence_presence (2017) is thus on a billboard in Cuba in front of a modernist cubic building and refers exactly to these blank spaces that open up between the sign-language reference and the pictorial space. tomorrow_yesterday, on the other hand, is located on an enormous four-storey construction-plan-like plastic sheet on a socialist residential and office tower in Warsaw (2018). The signifying words are now no longer left to themselves – self-referential – but instead they enter into a dialogue with an environment into which they seem to fit so naturally that at first glance one does not realise that these concept photographs are virtual works or, rather more, a combination of digital photography and digital post-processing.
The placement of the texts in the photographs also follows a poetic logic. For example, the word sequences it is_it is not are on a building site container and on the edge of a parapet on the roof of a multi-storey, regularly structured building (Warsaw, 2018), on which there is already vertical neon lettering introducing a hotel. On the one hand, this could be understood as a reference to a construction company, while on the other, either as advertising or also actually as an architectural art project.5 In any event, through the intentional placement, the sobriety of the black letters on the white background and the positioning at a certain point, the writing has a commentary function that can sometimes be read as witty, sometimes as ironic- but also sometimes as critical. Grübl’s lettering on a white background mostly replaces advertisements, which lends the poetic message a utopian touch. This becomes evident in the work nowhere_everywhere, with the employment of a photograph of a highway near Warsaw. The words are perfectly mounted on a shield that rises above the embankment. Due to the snowy or wintery conditions, the letters disappear in the mist, they seem to dissolve in the sky.
It is with such laconic, cryptic comments that Elisabeth Grübl not only questions pictorial reality in her photographic works, which can turn out to be a “fake” at any time, but she also expands the concept of site-specific art. For the eminently political gesture of placing one’s own art in an unauthorised public space and substituting advertising with non-commercial commentary also means to question the fundamentals of the historical and social conditions of a particular place. The fact that Elisabeth Grübl authorises herself in the process makes the projects appear as artistic visions of highly suggestive power over the course of which it is no longer possible to distinguish whether an image corresponds to reality or not. And so it is that precisely the indistinguishability of vision or reality in the perfect simulation is suspended in pictorial reality. And this, the artist tells us, is the actual reality.
1) The concept of self-referentiality, which, like its sister concept of art autonomy, goes back to Kant, is a key concept in the discourse of art in the 20th century. “Self-referential” and “autonomous” became virtually synonymous terms in the 20th century, playing a prominent role especially inlinguistic theory, but also in art and architecture.
2) Rainer Bellenbaum and Sabeth Buchmann, „Risse/Lücken/Scharnier A, Galerie nächst St. Stephan Vienna and Scheidegger & SPiess, Zurich, 2010, pp. 155-165
3) W.J.T. Mitchell: The Pictorial Turn, in: Art Forum International, March 1992, source:
4) Artists such as On Kawara with his date pictures, Christopher Wool’s graphic word paintings, Remi Zaugg’s word pictures (“Ein Bild. Ein Wort”), Timm Ulrichs’ word games (“Now - Nowhere”) or also artists such as Bethan Huws and Hanne Darboven are protagonists of international art who have literally “committed” themselves to the double meaning of written language and visual aesthetics.
5) I am thinking of a similar intervention on a roof parapet on a building on Vienna’s Mariahilfer Strasse, where the word “Tomorrow” can be read in LED illuminated lettering in a project by Arnold Reinthaler.